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In Saigon's Alleys

A Place I Cared About

Army Times Magazine, 1975


Dawn comes to the alleys around Tan Son Nhut Field with a faint grey light seeping past the graveyard and up the dusty road toward the banana market. Pots begin to clatter and red charcoal dims in brightening court-yards. A hungry dog sniffs in the ditch. A cyclo, a motor-driven coal scuttle equally useful as a conveyance or means of suicide, sputters hungrily down the alley in search of fares. A few women in black pajamas haggle over fresh bananas gleaming like fat yellow and green fingers in the stalls. For a moment all is quiet. Then, suddenly, ochre swarms of children rush out to begin the day's battles, and swarms of motorscooters appear from nowhere. The sinuous, tired cry of a soup-woman floats over the chaos.

Old Mr. Wang opens the shutters and stands beneath the sign that says, "Wang's Grocery" and "House For Rent." He folds his hands across his sagging chest, surveys the alley with dignity appropriate to the biggest paunch in four blocks, and smiles broadly. The day is officially begun.

The thoroughfare of the slums in Truong Minh Ky Street. It cuts through the rich decaying life of the back streets like a monotonous grey artery. Hungry and vaguely frightening men in work clothes jostle against hard-faced women carrying baskets of produce. Dirty buses roar and fill the air with choking fumes. Toilets flush onto sidewalks, washing orange peels and rotting vegetables into the gutters. From the counters of little pharmacies and sundry shops the Chinese merchants calmly watch the ebb and flow.

As you move away from Truong Minh Ky along side streets, commerce dies. Tangled alleys twist at bewildering angles. High walls and barbed wire shield palatial residences of wealthy Chinese while bony dogs and endless children play at the gates. Whole apartment houses of chattering prostitutes overlook shacks made of ammunition crates and roofed with tin. Everything in Southeast Asia is made of ammunition crates. Children in Saigon think that wood grows with lot numbers for howitzer shells.

The heart of Asia beats among the muddy recesses and noodle stands, in the ever-present smell of fish and charcoal and sewage. Westerners do not come here. They don't like to see rats floating in stagnant pools of green water. And so they never eat rice and fish sauce on the summer rooftops or drink beer and talk away long mornings with the bar girls or see Thao Han playing with her baby. They never see Asia.

By seven o'clock sunlight streams across the outlying rice lands, crosses the river, and deliberately enters the window of Bill Murphy. Bachelors have their routines just as other people. Every morning Bill tries to hide under the pillow when the sun hits his face. Then he curses a little, rises grumpily, brushes his teeth, and spits over the balcony into the empty lot. Vacant lots are intended as urinals in time of need and places to spit. Bill is fond of this particular lot because he likes its pattern of oily puddles and old crankshafts.

Every morning he forgets the crushed cockroaches on the floor, steps on them, and growls under his breath. Each night at eleven they run from under the walls and rush in mindless circles, making papery noises, until whacked with a shower shoe.

"You oozy bastards," he tells them, and twiddles them by the legs to break the congealed juices. They go over the rail into the lot.

He doesn't discard his roaches at night, because he is too drunk. The world is steady if not importunate in its demand for slightly lurid newspaper copy about the East, and the typewriter on the table allows Bill to supply the demand. The secret of writing, Bill believes, is to drink just the right amount of Vietnamese beer. Too much makes the product florid, too little leaves it sparse and dry. With just the right amount of beer, adjectives come with ease and taste, clauses flow in balance and pattern. Unfortunately, the right amount makes it hard to walk with accuracy.

He runs the back of his hand over a stubbly chin and decides that he should shave this week, though not necessarily today. One reason Bill stays in Vietnam is that shaving is optional. The other reasons are women and a lack of alarm clocks. Bill feels that satisfying physiological urges is the end in life. Anything else, he suspects, is going beyond God's intent.

On the cramped landing the Korean family, the only other residents of the second floor, squat around a can of charcoal. Mrs. Li smiles in a glow of gold teeth and waves a limp carp from the six-by-ten room where the Lis and their six children live. "Murphy-san, fish, have. Him boocoo dead, don't you?" Her English is colorful, if not technically correct.

"A fish, undeniably. Mr. Li get a job yet?"

Her face falls. "No, him no job yet."

She brightens. "No sweat. Rice still have, some little."

Mr. Li has been gone since before light, looking for work. There is no work in Saigon. If there were, Mr. Li could be an electrician, truck driver, second mate of an oceangoing tug, or conscienceless infantryman. He is smiling and deferential to everyone.

The Li children would baffle a platoon of sociologists. They are healthy, neat, and sound of character despite abject poverty. More puzzling to an American is that they are civil and love their parents. The older ones are already learning to read, though they have never seen a school.

The small Lis have decided that Bill's pale skin and odd eyes are aberrations to be forgiven. Kim Li Kuan, who at seven is already a dangerously charming woman, smiles up from her rice bowl. Her eyes flatten into sideways black slits.. "Murphy-san have candy?"

"Unprincipled imp," says Bill, stepping over her into the bathroom. Life is personal at high density.

In the courtyard, the wizened caretaker squats. A discouraged black beret droops across his cropped head. His face is a ploughed field of wrinkles, big gaping gullies, tiny delicate rivulets, middle-sized crevices. They flow across his face in waves, break around his nose, and reflect from his ears. Some catch in the wattles of his neck. He is three hundred years old, and his mother was an earth sprite.

Every morning when Bill Murphy leaves, the old man croaks under his breath and looks puzzled. He is puzzled because there are always crushed roaches on his doorstep, but Bill Murphy doesn't know that. For a man of three hundred he is fiendishly clever. When Bill counts the rent money into his hand, "Four, five, six" the old man takes them in French, "Three, four five," and Bill invariably pays an extra bill.

His mother isn't really an earth sprite.

In a dim room behind Madame Hai's betel-nut stand, Buddha glitters in chill ceramic complacency at a nude seamstress from Chicago. Why the prostitute who owns him put the god on a girly magazine is a mystery. Perhaps Loan, who could seduce a marble slab, suspects Buddha is not as unreachable as he seems.

On the bed, Loan stirs and opens travel-poster eyes that urge intimacy when she is thinking only of breakfast. Beside her in a forlorn pile are the tools of her trade, glittering high heels, false eyelashes and scanty dress. She looks better without them, but that isn't how the thing is done. She stretches seductively and glances at the jeweled wristwatch given to her by an American contractor. Eleven o'clock.

Graceful and tiny as a cameo elf, she rises and gathers clothes to wash. By two she must be in Kim Ling's club at the dusty edge of Cach Mang Street. Her life passes among dimness and canned beer, in a gaudy cage of drunken helicopter mechanics. She is free as a force-fed hen.

Bill Murphy, who once lived with her, asked why she didn't marry some sucker and spend all his money in America.

"Then nobody take care my mother. She old now, die soon."

Such sentiment surprised Bill, who thought she was a reincarnated lamprey.

"Can get plenty men," she said, understating the case. "Only have one mother."

Bill goggled.

"When I small, my mother do everything for me. Now I do for her. What men do for me?" Extremely little.

Bill, tired of having his pockets picked, moved out.

Before starting her washing she meticulously dusts her cosmetic table, a tacky creation of plastic wood and blue polyethylene roses. It has a mirror and two drawers, one of which works smoothly. It is the most beautiful thing Loan has ever owned. She paid three month's savings for it. Sometimes she gazes at it for an hour. It depressed Bill Murphy to watch her, which is the real reason he moved out.

The noonday sun beats down on Saigon. By the roadside mangy dogs pant in available shade, wary to avoid a kick. The festering head of one of their friends grins in stale agony from a pool of ditch water. His owners ate him yesterday, but it is too hot for the living to be concerned. Aged mama-sans move more slowly under loads of firewood and vegetables. At the meat market flies hum drowsily around hanging flesh, hardly disturbed by customers' fingers. Even the children seek shelter. A blind beggar couple in their eighties hobble painfully by Loan's gate. The small boy with the alms cup pulls respectfully on the rope which ties them together. The old man tires to help his wife with a ropy blue-veined hand on her shoulder. Both totter with the effort.

Downtown, tourists drink gin and tonic and gaze at martial statues.

On the dark walls of Kim Ling's club a lizard hunts, dragon eyes smoky with fly lust. Kim Ling counts the month's bribe money at the bar. At 35 she is tough, infinitely shrewd, and still pretty.

She riffles the big orange bills with a practiced thumb, dragging a finger to test the texture of the paper. It is a slow day, and the girls won't come until two. The glasses over the bar lack the gleam that colored lights will give them and, without bottles of beer, tables look cracked and stained, tired almost. Kim Ling doesn't notice, being immune to illusion. Illusion is in the minds of foreigners, who believe anything you tell them. Kim Ling deals in substance.


Traffic rushes past on Cach Mang. Kim Ling lights a cigarette and reclines against the bar, her face very tired. Smoke curls to the ceiling, disturbing the lizard.

Twenty years have passed since a swarthy French lieutenant led Kim Ling into a bungalow in the northern village where she was born. In the ensuing exchange, he took her virginity and she got his wallet. The pattern persisted, though now she deals in the innocence or experience of others. The years, while profitable, have been wearying. She continues because there is nothing else for her to do.

The East takes a practical view of sin. Kim Ling gives order and comfort to what otherwise would occur in dark alleys, asking only half a girl's take in return. She nurses her girls when they are sick and dismisses them gently when they are old.

The bills go into Kim Ling's brassiere to await the police chief's agent. She stares at the wall, thinking about nothing. There is nothing to think about.

By midafternoon the life of the alleys imperceptibly begins to wane. In front of Nguyen Thao Thi's ramshackle barbershop, the leather-faced peasant women mechanically swing their picks in the roadbuilding project. The wizened care-taker at Bill Murphy's house empties Bill's trash in the courtyard and examines it piece by piece with senile concentration. In Wang Chi's pool hall, which floods knee-deep in the rainy season, the cue ball cracks against the floor and is pursued by small boys.

Caught in the merry-go-round of a failing economy, people who have little to sell try desperately to sell it to people who can't afford to buy. In the shade of the broken wall by the graveyard, withered women sit in endless patience beside a dozen peanuts or three balls of rice paste. Nobody wants rice paste. Small boys beat tock-tock-tock with pieces of bamboo to advertise the soup their mothers are selling.

At a bomb-bomb stand on Truong Minh Ky a thin white man and an athletic black from Georgia sit over warm beer, a picture of contented lethargy, gazing at the life of the streets. Their careless slouches suggest unfamiliarity with mobs and responsibility. Midas Randall leans back and looks at the sky in sleepy speculation. With a long drag on his cigarette he says to Bill Murphy, "I may put up a hotel downtown. Some friends of mine and me. Something to do on the side, until I get back on my feet. Big money in it."

"Suppose?"

"You know it ain't the money. As much money as I've had, I don't like to bother with it anymore."

His pained expression indicates the burden of money. "Yep."

"Of course, it all depends on the Greek shipping interests."

"Reckon?"

Midas shrugs with the air of one to whom high finance is crystal. The lapel of his coat, stolen from the coat rack of a tourist restaurant, is stained with six weeks of breakfast. Hs own clothes were left behind when he deserted from the American navy seven years before.

"We got the debenture collateral and our management associates -- between you and me, now -- they're gonna drop the TWA contract and work with us. That's how big it is. But it's the fealty assiduities, you know."

Bill stares at his beer with furrowed eyebrows, struggling with the fealty assiduities.

"Yeah...yeah, assiduities are rough these days. Damn those assiduities."

Men who have been badly used by the world must manufacture their self-respect. Most of the American derelicts on Truong Minh Ky have made and lost millions and been familiars of royalty. Many speak several languages though not, of course, any which anyone else is liable to speak. The iron-clad rule is that you never question the other man. You let him be a magnate down on his luck, and he lets you be a CIA agent on a secret mission of unspeakable importance. It is a generous system and saves a lot of effort.

Midas hits the table in a theatrical outburst of sorrow.

"Dammit, Bill, this region has so much potential! It hurts when the big interests ain't interested. But they just won't listen...." His eyes are tragic.

"Yeah, the big interests are like that," says Bill, paying for the beers, and wondering how a liar as good as Midas could have failed to make good.

In late afternoon the sun gleams blood red on the rusting tin roofs of the alleys. High overhead the clouds glow pink and gauzy in the deepening sunset of Asia. Beyond the city green rice fields grow suddenly dark in the red light. The alleys dim. Activity slows. The lights come on in Wang's Grocery and House For Rent as Mama-san Wang begins the evening shift. Bill Murphy crosses the dusty way to buy his nightly three quarts of beer.

Beneath rows of dried fish and cans of condensed milk, beside brown sacks of rice, Mama-san Wang sits with patient calm. At Bill's entrance the wrinkles of her plump face flow in a ritual smile of welcome. The foreigner has three bottles, so he must want three beers. With slowness partly of age and partly of character she rummages in the leaky galvanized icebox that keeps the drinks lukewarm.

Beneath the fish sauce a thin pretty girl sits on a case of Hong Kong crackers with her baby. Her name is Mae Li and she is always serious and a little sad. At Bill's entrance the baby gurgles and crows excitedly with much waving of small arms. No dolt, he remembers that the large stranger will sometimes give a fellow chocolate or other good things from the glass case by Mama-san Wang. The trick is to get his attention.

"Gitchy-goo, kid," says Bill awkwardly, unused to children. With an experimental finger he pokes at the squirming child. He suspects there must be other things one may say to a baby. His mother speaks the only grammatical English in the alleys, learned from her American husband before he decided he wasn't really married to her and went back to California. She plans to marry Bill though he, an obtuse male, suspects nothing.

"He is a very fine baby-san, is he not? He satisfies me very well."

"Nice little fella," says Bill peering curiously. "Reckon he'd like some chocolate?"

"Oh, yes, I do think so."

Bill removes his finger from the sticky grasp and supplies the chocolate, which is wetly eaten. He wishes Mae Li weren't trying to marry him. Being Western, he doesn't realize that it isn't very important to her. Life will go on in any event. It always has.

Mama-san Wang hands him the brown bottles with their green-eyed tigers and gives him his change.

"Night, mom. Night, Mae Li. You too, kid."

Mama-san Wang smiles, wondering whether foreigners mean anything when they speak. Bill Murphy crosses the alley and doesn't count his change until he is out of sight, which is the furthest any sane man will trust a Saigon shopkeeper.

Sunset wanes to darker tones. The air cools. Wind rustles in the trees and there is a hint of rain. In the courtyard below Bill Murphy's balcony, a slender girl walks through the darkness to the peak-roofed shrine beneath the flower tree. By day it is a mass of green and gold dragons, by night a dark outline obscuring the moon rising in the still-cloudless west. A faint smell of incense floats into the night as she lights joss ticks. The glowing points trace cherry arcs as she bows again and again.

From the distance comes the lingering thump of artillery, a movement of air more than a sound. The nightly fighting is beginning in the countryside. A young girl bowing to Buddha while the guns roar in dark forests -- thirty years of Vietnam.

©Fred Reed
www.FredOnEverything.net

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