HANOI, VIETNAM — The American is awake early, considering. He got here Monday afternoon, and before nine o’clock on Tuesday morning, he’s strolling past the corner of Le Thai To and Bao Khanh, with no destination, when the merchant approaches. The merchant inquires after the American’s nationality and the length of his stay. Then the merchant asks for his help. The merchant displays postcards, color snapshots of the Old Quarter, stacked in the crook of his arm in a cardboard wrap that’s not quite a box. The merchant also has maps and photocopies of Lonely Planet guidebooks, but he senses a sale in the postcards, which depict the Old Quarter’s bicycle traffic with false tranquility. Three of the ten postcards show the same pudgy white man sitting in the seat of a cyclo. The American offers a dollar, and the merchant begins an elaborate complaint, which the American interrupts with a second dollar. The elaborate complaint shifts into effusive gratitude and, the American senses, laughter. He believes this inoculation will last a good hour. He has no idea; he has no idea that he has no idea.
The American tries to shoot a picture of a large wooden placard with an inspirational, indecipherable Communist aphorism. A merchant waits until the shot is taken and then follows the American, who wants to cross back from the corner of Hang Trong to the footpath encircling Hoan Kiem Lake. Sir. You need postcards? No thanks. Map? No thanks. Phrasebook? The merchant brandishes a photocopied Lonely Planet guidebook. The American smiles: But your English is excellent! The merchant says, but maybe you want to talk to somebody else. No, the American says, without bothering to test out the local term: không, cám òn. It doesn’t matter: không wouldn’t mean no any more than no would. Traffic is impassable, and the American is timid, captive. But the merchant soon tires of him and shrugs. He steps into the swarm of motorbikes, flowing around him as slow as surf, and crosses Le Thai To. He stands at his post on the footpath by the lake, and he waits.
Another merchant, eleven years old. He spies the American, walking on Ngo Quyen. It’s still early. The merchant has a cardboard wrap of postcards, maps, and bound, blurrily photocopied editions of Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. The merchant fires several questions regarding the American’s age, his point of origin, his destination, his occupation, his length of stay, his opinion of the city, his opinion of the people, and, inevitably, his cheap-postcard-and-counterfeit-books situation. The American smiles and says no thanks. The merchant fumbles his postcards, fluttering to the street, and the American scoops them up and hands them back. The merchant says merci — er, thanks. The American says pas de quoi — er, you’re welcome. At the corner, four merchants lounge on Chinese motorbikes, waiting for the American and the boy, who’s patting the American’s arm. The men take over. Motorbike, hello. Sir, motorbike. Woo-hoo. Hello, motorbike. Beyond them, in the street, motorbikes buzz past, overloaded with cargo: kids, sacks of rice, chickens, babies, elderly women leafing through broadsheet newspapers. The American steps past the merchants without comment and glances at the traffic, the bicycles swarming around speeding taxis, the women wandering in front of motorbikes, the motorbikes swerving around them. The American stares. Jesus, you’d have to be, like, seriously fucking insane to get on one of those fucking things.
Do you mind going to lunch on my motorbike? The friend of a friend, who’s also American, has already swung one leg over her engine when she asks the question, which isn’t really a question. The American accepts the ride with neither hesitation nor helmet. She says, you’ve been on one of these before, right? Once, he admits — a motorcycle in San Francisco. The friend of the friend nods. Oh, yeah, you’re fine, she says. The American does not bother to ask for a helmet, though he wants one, badly. The friend of the friend shouts back to him that she actually can’t really remember ever meeting the friend that put the American in touch with her, the friend he had thought they shared. The friend of the friend is, then, a complete stranger, steering them on her motorbike into the swirl of Han Thuyen. She shouts back to him: This is like ballet — it’s all about anticipating what everyone’s going to do. She scoots them through the massive multiple intersection at Le Van Huu, while motorbikes rush at them like asteroids, whirling around them and away. The man on the next motorbike, if he turns his head at this instant, could touch his nose to the American’s shoulder. Oh, and the trick is not to tense up, says the friend of the friend who’s turned out to be a stranger. That gets you killed. When you ride on the back of these things, you have to just totally relax.
It has still not dawned on the American that wearing a plain white T-shirt and jeans will not make him less conspicuous, less susceptible to the merchants. He believes in the plain white T-shirt and jeans, because a Londoner once mistook him for a Londoner when he wore them in London, and a Parisian once mistook him for a Parisian when he wore them in Paris. He obviously understands that he doesn’t look like a local, but he thinks a plain white T-shirt and jeans are at least more polite than a Limp Bizkit shirt and a zoom lens. It’s sweltering, of course, as humid as a locker room. On Ba Trieu, on Hai Ba Trung, on Hang Bai, the American melts. He needs a 1.5-liter La Vie, or even a Coke. But first he has to cross the street, past the merchants. Hello, motorbike. Cyclo, sir. Sir, motorbike. Motorbike, sir. Where are you going? Woo-hoo. Cyclo. Motorbike.
At four o’clock, the American is sitting in a café on Dien Bien Phu. The café has metal stools and tables, with large glass windows flipped up and hooked to the ceiling. He orders sweet, viscous coffee and watches a merchant tie feathered chickens to her bicycle, over the frame and the seat and the handlebars, until the bicycle is covered with birds and she has to walk it. The American considers a snapshot but doesn’t want to be a rube. A merchant in a conical hat watches him watch, and she approaches, gently, with a plastic bag of small cylindrical doughnuts, fried on sticks and rolled in coarse sugar. The American slides his wallet out, and they pass doughnuts and notes through the window. A boy standing next to the merchant watches the exchange and reaches through the window with a pack of Wrigley’s Spearmint gum flat on his palm. Hello, gum? The American hands him a five-thousand-dong note. No, the boy says, and takes the note. Ten thousand. The American plucks at the note in the boy’s hand, and the boy yanks it away, laughing: OK, OK. The price on the gum says two thousand dong. Thirteen cents.
Hang Hanh, the guidebook promises, is where the locals hang out. So do the Americans. The L-shaped street is crammed with Americans, and bars and restaurants, blaring techno and Bob Marley, music that’s universal and impossible for the American to react to. A phalanx of maître d’s flanks the street as motorbikes mince around them. Each maître d’ beseeches the American to visit his restaurant, which all seem to have the same name. The last maître d’ in the gauntlet tugs at the sleeve of the American’s T-shirt. At the street’s intersection with Bao Khanh, a merchant approaches. Hello, motorbike. As the merchant and the American pass each other, the merchant mutters: Motorbike… marijuana.
In the middle of the night, the American stands on Pho Hoa Lo outside the locked prison — “the Hilton” — with an American friend, unaware they are being observed. Then they notice the face watching them, a finger pressed to his lips, through a square hole in the prison’s wooden entrance door. The door cracks open. A hand urgently beckons them inside. The prison guard wears a sleeveless T-shirt and smiles. The American offers two American dollars; the guard appraises them, cocks his head and extends three fingers. The American hands him a third dollar. Then the guard leads the Americans down the peaceful, desolate corridor, flipping light switches as he goes. The American reasons that if the guard decides to lock them in, the first tour group will arrive at eight o’clock the next morning; he can deal, he can deal. The guard smiles, points to a photograph. John McCain. The American nods and follows the guard to a room exhibiting torture instruments, racks, ropes, blades. The guard points at a twelve-foot-tall guillotine and slices his hand across his neck. The American winces theatrically. They wander through dim chambers and porticoes until they’re back at the entrance. The guard peeks through the prison door, glances up and down the street. It’s as empty as the prison. The American offers two more notes and shakes the guard’s hand. The American and the American friend slip through the prison entrance onto the empty street: no merchants, no motorbikes, no one else to say no to tonight.