Welcome to the Ho (Chi Minh)

“I could probably be shown by facts and figures that there is no distinctly native American criminal class except congress.” Mark Twain.

Nomadic Matt said he’d never return to Vietnam because they cheated him, and openly boasted about it in Vietnamese to one another, assuming he couldn’t understand them, which is normally the case I’d assume. But it was my buddy Cedric gave me the lowdown on Vietnam. While we were in Turkey. Cheap living and high pay, a good exchange rate, enough money to save and enjoy, nice people and incredible girls.

“They’ll cheat you, for a dollar or two, and they’ll steal your motorcycle, but what’s to be expected from generations coming out of civil strife and third-world poverty? America bombed the fuck out of this country,” Cedric says to me, “when you’re hungry, the rule is that you take what you can get, and it’s only fair they do. Fair dues mate, fair dues.”

I agree.

“Anyways, it’s not like that anymore, unless you’re from way out in the sticks. For you, here, you’d have to try real hard to go broke. With your credentials you should expect the highest pay. Cheers mate!”  We clash our bottles of Tiger beer and order another round.

I remembered hearing Korean businessmen in 2000 saying they were transferring with their companies to Indonesia, Malaysia, China and Vietnam, and thinking that inevitably there’d be enough Koreans in some parts of Asia to feed a couple hundred good English teachers.

It’s not that difficult to teach in Ho Chi Minh. Right now I teach Korean children, privately, twice a week for each class. Plus I teach at some Vietnamese public schools. So I teach about twenty hours a week and make enough to maintain a two-bedroom apartment and feed my family. But I need more money. This is only just enough to pay rent and eat.

Cedric wants to hire western teachers from overseas to teach business English at industrial complexes out in the rice paddies to Vietnamese, Japanese and Korean and then take a cut of the teachers’ pay. What English teachers refer to as a headhunting job. A despicable job, the go-betweener, in my opinion.  But, according to Cedric, it’s much more lucrative for the time spent doing it.  I ask him how come he’s not doing it now. He says it’s too much work on his own and it’s fun to have a partner.

Now Cedric is my bro. After all he hired me and Rita to teach in Turkey back when we were floating around in South Korea with our sons Josh and Caleb, wondering what we’d do next. And he was the one who turned me on to Saigon. I feel obligated to him in that.

But I think I know well enough he’s as much of a drunken flake as I am, and would blow it all off to drink and whore without end. I told him as much and he agreed. Maybe both of us need to get hired in a good school with a simple monthly payment.

Even as Vietnam calls itself communist or whatever, it defies all definitions. It’s socialist in some senses and communist in others. But as they say you can take an Asian out of capitalism but you can’t take capitalism out of an Asian. That’s about as deep into that topic as I care to delve.

Go to Cambodia. Get your visa in Sihanoukville, ironically the last place America occupied in that one war over here, the one with Rambo, now the designated spot for expat residency work visas. Once you have a clear local background check then you’re good to go. Unless the visa laws change. They do. All the time too. But for now this is the best visa. Only obtainable in Sihounakville, Cambodia.

“It’s a good place to read about American history, drink beer and shag birds,” says Cedric.

Medical is also something else here in Vietnam. It’s cheap and high quality from what I can tell, with loads of doctors everywhere, and they seem to know their stuff in a general sense. They fixed my back like no western doctor has done, ever, in thirty years of back pain. This I can say. I didn’t need American insurance. I had none. No insurance at all. But, for fifteen dollars they fixed my back. It’s the acupuncture needles, the cupping and yearly black medicine that fix my back. Walks, swimming, yoga and light weights help too. But also, even the western medicine here is higher quality than we imagine. Possibly better than America at the moment, where the medical system is so fucked up that a tummy ache cost me a couple grand in 2010. Here I can get antibiotics at any pharmacy for fifty cents.

If you get sick you’ll be taken care of, but you’re going to have to work to eat. This makes a whole lot of sense to me. You can call it Kung Fu Capitalism, Stephen Segal Socialism, or A Case of Butter for all I care. It’s all jobs and medical insurance for me for me right now, and I can’t find either of these back in the states.

Friends back home ask me if it’s difficult living under a repressive political system. Other than in reference to my time in America, I can’t say as I know. So far I haven’t been repressed, ever, in any way here in Vietnam. I can go out on the corner and advertise my teaching services while drinking a beer. Nobody cares. No one asks if I have a permit, if I’m an immigrant; legal or illegal, if I have a business license, the right passport stamp. None of this matters much as long as I mind my own business and don’t hurt anyone. Needless to say, one does not normally get ticketed for jay-walking in Saigon.

There are no vagrancy laws I can tell of. I like that, because I hate vagrancy laws. It’s illegal to smoke weed here. Nonetheless you can do it anywhere. No problems. No hassle. Do the deals and get your wheels.

I bought a Yamaha scooter for cash and drove off with naught but a piece of plastic with no picture on it. No license, permit, registration fees or proof of insurance. I have to wear a helmet. But if I get caught without one I pay ten dollars and it’s done. Compare this to California, where my wife was fined six-hundred dollars for rolling a red-light on an empty street and where the cops had likely times her on camera for five or more lights. When she opened the email it stated that opening the email is an admittance of guilt. Fuck that. Fuck the cops in America and the bullshit senseless laws created for nothing other than extorting money from the middle class.

Here in the Ho, you can park your scooter anywhere along the street, or on a sidewalk, or drive on the sidewalk, which is always fun. Nobody will ticket you for parking on the wrong side of the street on the wrong day, in the wrong position, with the wrong tint to your windows.

It might get stolen. All the old Aussies tell me my bike will get stolen no matter how ugly and old it is. But Cedric tells me that it’s much better here now, and that little mafia orphans used to dash down the streets stealing whatever was in your lap. Whereas now they just breathe fire, swallow pit vipers, beg and sell merchandise.

“But, they’ll still steal and cheat from you, mate! Be careful!” everyone tells me.

So, do I feel suppressed? I felt far more in the United States, where a love for long walks with beer, even a legal joint still might get me shot in the back. Whatever they might be Vietnam’s problems are not with me. And mine are not with it. We have reached symbiosis for now, Vietnam and me.

So long as I prosper in this free market system everyone here views my existence as a financial boon and a sign of progress. You know how it works. Same as America or any other country really. Only some places it’s officially sanctioned and others it’s not. I can afford it here but not back home. I have my white skin, American citizenship, my paper degrees and the capitalistic colonial history of the west that’s left me with business English to thank.

If I sound a little resentful to my own country, so what? I have never in my life been a patriot to any politician’s lies, laws, or lip service. Maybe I am a spoiled brat living off my native language in a country hungry for the opportunities English allows them.

Honestly, the bottom line is I like it here. I like Asia even for everything I hate about it.

But that’s not all. I can’t feed my family off our nation’s wars in the Middle East and I’m thankfully ineligible for food stamps back home. I refuse to go back to making ten dollars an hour with a master’s degree in a country where a cup of coffee costs the same.  In other words I like Asia at this particular moment in time as a white male native speaker of English. The pendulum has swung. Asia is on its way up still, just as it was 25 years ago when my mom was making loads in Japan with her free car and free gas and free everything else plus pay. And for a long time coming. Still, we can hope and pray that old Kip was right. East is East. Wests is West. Please, never ever shall the twains ever meet, praise glob.


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