A Night on Ho’s Backpacker Street: Barefoot Brits and Toasty Toddlers.

“Temperate temperance is best. Intemperate temperance injures the cause of temperance, while temperate temperance helps it in its fight against intemperate intemperance. Fanatics will never learn that, though it be written in letters of gold across the sky.” Mark Twain.

At night on Bui Vien streets fill with foreigners and locals, drinking, eating, working, fucking, singing, dancing and drugging. Ice is readily available, as are other cocktails of unknown ingredients. The local mafia brings in street kids, feeds them a bowl of rice a day, then sends them out to stick venomous snakes down their throat and blow fire for tips. The flames shoot high, heating my face from fifteen meters. From the smiles I’d judge the young boys enjoy their jobs so far, deeming themselves daredevils.

They begin experimenting, as children their age do, so that the fires are spreading onto the rags of their clothing. They spin the their burning rags around their heads, unable to understand that this makes the flames leap. But they learn through experience. One child burns his face and fingers with the heat. I see it. Nobody else seems to. I point it out to Cedric. He recognizes the child is in pain as well. The boy stops and frets, rubs his face, rubs his hands and arms, looks around, uncertain whether to go on with his work. He’s singed, and will be in pain for weeks.

I don’t believe anyone other than that boy, me, and Cedric noticed this. Maybe I’m wrong. I hope I’m wrong, but the poor child is already so chaffed and char-burnt otherwise that it’s hard to tell the difference. I happened to be watching him when he did it, and saw the flame reach down too close. But afterwards you could look around and see the party going on, a mini Mardi Gras, the burnt child not particularly relevant, everyone so inside their own head with booze and festivity.

Along comes a beggar lady with a child she rents out to help earn sympathy from foreign tourists. Although the woman knows how to make herself appear poor and pitiful, she’s forgotten to keep the kid equally pathetic. The child is in nice new clean clothes, has an unblemished creamy complexion, a thick head of glossy hair, and is downright fat. Her teeth are clean and she’s grinning ear-to-ear. Her family must make a pretty penny renting her out nights.

I’m glad of it. I’m glad that not only does this baby bring in cash for her parents and other money-makers, but also her parents return it to her, feeding her well and keeping her clothing nice, new and clean. Nonetheless I know nothing about how things work here in Vietnam, especially when it comes to this. The culture is far more complex than Korean. Korea, being so isolated, tends towards clear-set and simple norms, to the point of stark black-and-white. On the other hand, Vietnam is smack in the middle of Southeast Asia, smack in the center of the seafood and rice belt. It’s much more Hindu-Buddhist and much less Confucius. Their society has borrowed from China, Europe and India. I’ve no doubt I could spend a decade here and still find a new layer to the onion.

Other characters stroll along the throng. A local kid on a Ducati with a little Asian hottie draped wetly around his shoulders and waist. A lady selling deep fried bananas. A man selling phone minutes and lottery tickets. A man with no legs that rides a bike powered by a pumpable handle/steering wheel. A chubby, well-dressed middle-age lady in gaudy gold jewelry comes along claiming she’s poor and hungry and will give you a back-rub; only ten bucks for ten minutes. This sounds like a good deal to those just arrived, or still in the west, but a few blocks away one can get a much better (real – not happy ending) massage including cupping that lasts twenty minutes for about three bucks.

Along strolls the next odd character, a Brit so drunk he‘s lost his shorts and shoes and has money falling from his pockets as he stumbles by. A short distance behind him the jackals encroach. I attempt to catch up with him, make sure he’s not broke by morning. But it’s too late. He’s lost in the crowd. I turn around and see that somehow Cedric has gone too. This is my cue to call it quits. It’s 4 a.m. Time to go home.

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