This morning I get up, shop through the alley market for daily food (more later), Nam takes me to work, I teach three classes, and at lunch I do a little business on the Black Market. The Vietnamese say “Same same.” No difference, no big deal.
The Business on the Black Market Story starts with a bad phone battery on Saturday night, after my return from Tay Ninh. It died, as in, DEAD. I had my phone unlocked in Seattle, which means that my phone can now accept a phone card from anywhere in the world (a good thing for travelers to know…it’s a really cheap way to go, rather than buying a new phone, etc, --it costs nothing!) Anyway, I will not bore you with the details of my frenzy trying to figure how to get my phone back in working order. Basically, it involves hours on Sunday, hopping from place to place on the back of numerous motorbikes (I can’t call Nam; he’s without a phone, too, remember?) looking for a Samsung place that might have my battery for sale. Finally I find a Samsung outlet and the girl tells me “That battery is nowhere in Vietnam. It’s from T-Mobile Samsung, T-Mobile is not here.”
Even though she's adamant, I try again yesterday with Nam. No luck. Same story. Same same.
Did it really seem such a bother to get in my car and drive all the way to Northgate to the T-Mobile store to get something fixed before I came?
Then. Today. There is a guy who works in the principal’s office as an assistant. His name is Mr. Yom (everyone is either Miss or Mr. here). Most days he is dressed in such flashy attire, it seems he should really be out clubbing rather than sitting at his computer, or maybe that he’s heading out clubbing at 5:00, but he sits at his desk and gets things done. He’s so efficient. Today he’s wearing a hot pink striped shirt and tight white pants. Mr. Yom became famous at our first meeting when he was explaining “payroll reductions” but mistakenly (?) replaced the “r” with an “s.” He’s a funny guy. Anyway, he hears about my phone problem and sends me an email. “Bring your phone to me,” he writes.
I write back that my battery does not exist in Vietnam, and he repeats the same directive: “Bring it to me.” So I do. He says “Give me two hours.” Two hours later, I go by his office and he says “come with me.” We walk about four blocks down the street where a girl sits at a counter holding my phone battery. I am amazed. “Yom! You are magic! How did you do that?”
He gives me his little sideways mischievous, flirty smile, swings his head to the side and says two words “Black Market.”
I am full of questions. But Mr. Yom answers only in short syllables and avoids eye contact. It’s everywhere, it’s a network. He made some calls.
The battery costs me about $9. I was ready to buy a new phone. I’m thinking what fun it would be to run some experiments, Soprano Style. Mr. Yom, I need a semi-automatic. How many hours?
Another Nam story. Yesterday, we’re on hunt #2 for the Samsung outlet in the pouring rain. He’s negotiated rain gear for me—it’s amazing how rain gear just appears out of nowhere when the rain comes—and I am on the back of his bike, in a dress, without holding onto anything, in a monsoon, with crazy motorbikes everywhere. Only now it doesn’t even seem crazy. I am just a part of the mass.
He makes a point to show me that he is wearing a raincoat that says “Vietnamese American Trade School.” He points to his motorbike and is trying to tell me something…like he usually does. And, same same, I don’t know what he is saying. I just nod and smile at him a lot. I give him the address for a tailor (while I was downtown Sunday, I decided to have Carolyn’s tailor make a real suit for me and while I was there I also bought a Luis Vuitton purse) where I had an appointment to go for a fitting. So Nam takes me, waits for me, then takes me back to the alley. Our stop? At his aunt’s and sister’s house, right down the alley. He tells on me. He tells them that I have bought material from someone else and am having a suit made at a place other than in the alley. At least I think that is what is happening, as I read his gestures and read their faces. Remember that his sister sells material, and I am having a dress made out of that three doors down, too. So I feel really sheepish.
And today… he is late picking me up at the gym. I wait for ten minutes and suddenly there he is with another explanation: this time, a flat tire. But he has something he is very excited about: it is all wrapped up in plastic…he unwraps and unwraps and he pulls out—a motorbike license and registration. He points at it, then at himself, and makes a very proud, hand-over-heart gesture. Not many motorbike drivers have licenses, and I can only guess why he got one, but there it is. I am no longer an illegal passenger; perhaps I am now the only legal passenger in Ho Chi Minh City. And, for bike fans, guess what…it is a ’59 Super Cub. A ’59! I knew Nam’s was retro, but I had no idea. Was he going to the VA Trade School to get his license? I’m sure I get most of these guesses wrong. (He has added a new seat to his, thank goodness.)
Speaking of bikes, Tarn gave up on the motorbike idea and came home with a bicycle today. It’s brand new, with a basket in the front. He wanted to clarify right away that it was a very manly bike, despite the fact that it says “Pretty Lady” in cursive down the V frame.
Tarn arranged for us to have Vietnamese classes tonight, and I just spent the last hour learning about 57 different vowel tones with a very humorous, direct teacher who would say a firm “no!” every time we pronounced something incorrectly. So I am excited to say one thing to Nam tomorrow: “What time is it?” I think he will be excited. Hopefully, he will not talk my ear off even more.
I told you I would explain more about my daily food from the market…that will have to wait for tomorrow. But it’s OK, because it’s same same every day.