Crossing Into Vietnam

He was nodding in and out. An enormous American with pale skin and a scruffy goatee was speaking then drifted off. We'd stood in line for a long time before we finally spoke to each other. We were both nervous and uncomfortable. We remedied both these of feelings with polite conversation.

It was muddy outside and I could feel the dirt caking to my feet. Vietnamese immigration was tiring and we both needed something to wind the clock. He said he'd only eaten two pills of valium but he was incoherent at times and sort of nodded out on his feet. We both told our stories and complained about vaguely similar things. It made him happy that he didn't suffer alone.

The line was moving slowly. The bribery was blatant. Native Vietnamese men and women walked to the front of the line with money tucked into their passports and were served first. It didn't make me angry. I didn't care. I had no money so it didn't really matter how fast I got the stamps in my passport. Things would work out no matter the time I spent in line.

Our conversation started to die just as he put his passport under the glass window and everything happened on schedule. We met up a few minutes later at the quarantine counter where they were taking tourists for the few bills of Vietnamese dong they had left. I didn't have any so I started to joke with the lady behind the counter. She smiled but didn't relent.

My resources consisted of one American dollar, a few thousand Cambodian riel and two Iceberg Slim pocket books. I was willing to give up any of these except my dollar bill. The American looked at me as I laughed nervously. His mind cleared of the valium and reached into his pocket.

He threw my quarantine fee on the counter like we were in a dice game. I started spitting thank you's and he turned to me as he was walking off and said, "Relax kid, do you know the exchange rate?". I thought for a bit and replied, "I'll pay the ten cents back as soon as I can". His dull eyes smiled and he walked off.

I pushed through the door into Vietnam and he had already been swept into a cab. That fitted both of us nicely. A swarm of taxi drivers grabbed at me and stole the bag off my back and tried to put it into the trunk of their cabs. They wanted my money desperately. I began telling the taxi drivers that I was broke.

They didn't believe me. Some looked at me like I was mentally ill or sick. All I could offer to pay them was a single US dollar for a ride from the Cambodian border to Ho Chi Minh City. We argued for awhile. They tried to look angry and put-out. I cursed at them telling them that they were ridiculous.

The Vietnamese faces soured in front of me. They tugged at me but I had no choice but to stand my ground. The car taxis were the first to give-up and go back to reading their newspapers. The motorcycle taxis just kept pulling at me until a beautiful young Vietnamese girl yelled at me in quick and perfect English, "Do you want to come with us?" She pulled me to a van and I explained my situation and she was happy to negotiate with the driver of her van and with her parents. They told me just to tip the driver when we got to Ho Chi Minh City.

She was twenty six and had long black hair and laughed to hear that I'd run out of money in Cambodia and needed to go to an ATM. After we threw my bag in the back of the van I found a place among children and teenagers. The adults sat up front and spoke rapidly to each other. The kids in the back began firing questions at me in English with Australian and Californian accents.

None of them were from Vietnam. They'd all just come from a Casino in Cambodia and were riding the complimentary bus back to their hotel. I smiled when they spoke English and offered me snacks. The girl that had offered me the ride and I began to quiz each other on our backgrounds. She was a UCLA Medical student. Her Australian cousin that sat at my feet began insisting she tell me about the most dangerous diseases in the world. I listened attentively as she retold stories of infection and loss of life. "Listen to her, She's going to be doctor. Isn't that gross?" the little Australian boy asked me and I agreed.

The Medical student was the oldest child and a bridge between the two generations. She spoke both languages and followed both conversations. We talked as they played tricks on the girls that fell asleep. Rice paddies and water buffalo gave way to city streets and open air restaurants.

The little Australian boy, that was so fascinated by the diseases of the world, told me about the things I would see in Vietnam. He worried that I'd dislike the like the food and told me that he would eat sausage rolls as soon as he got to Australia. We neared the city centre and conversation broke out in a mixture of Vietnamese and English. They were deciding where the best place to drop me off would be.

The conversation stopped abruptly and the Medical student asked, "Where do you want to go". "To an ATM," I reminded her. The van stopped and her father jumped out and pulled me out of the van. He flagged down a motorbike taxi and explained were I needed to go. The van driver opened the back of the van and handed my bag to me. I gave him his dollar tip. I waved the van full of foreigners good bye and thanked girl for helping me. I tried to explain how much she'd helped me but she got embarrassed and brushed me aside to slide the van door shut. They pulled away and I raced through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City.

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