As expats living in Vietnam, we learn to roll with the punches, tactfully field tricky questions from locals, and smile at little kids who touch us then run away at breakneck speed giggling their heads off.
Part of the package is that eerie feeling we’re being observed, but, what the hell, it’s better to be the focus of attention than ignored. When the extra attention grates on our nerves, we can pull a few tricks here and there in an effort to be less conspicuous.
And that’s where the ‘mystery bag’ comes in.
Most plastic bags we acquire when shopping are either clear or mostly translucent, thus affording a pretty clear view of what’s inside.
Everyone walks around with them, but over time I noticed that while locals never gawked at the bags of other Vietnamese people, many were absolutely fascinated by what’s in mine.
Many Vietnamese people have not traveled abroad, or if they have it’s mostly been around Asia, so naturally they conjure up images of lunatic Westerners concealing guns, hammers, bombs, grenades, stolen goods, or body parts.
To mitigate the situation, I began carrying opaque, dark green plastic bags, thus concealing the contents from prying eyes.
I expected people to shrug and roll with it, something like: “Tough bananas, can’t see what he’s got, no biggie,” but, the situation definitely deteriorated.
People were curious before, but now they’re more determined than ever to unveil the contents of that bag. Some will go to any length, pulling off daring, bizarre stunts to expose the contents of that bag!
I’m generally laid back and transparent, understanding what fuels the inquisitiveness. Also, frankly, I couldn’t give a damn what people think, but for some reason the curiosity surrounding my bag gets under my skin.
A degree of inquisitiveness is therefore expected, but at which point does it creep over the line to absurdity?
A city workman whom I vaguely recognized from a neighbourhood café interrupted his street repair project as I strolled by, marched over, and actually tried to pry open the bag while it was in my hands.
In my hands! Tried to pry it open!
What could drive the man to such extreme behavior?
I brusquely pulled it away and strutted off in a huff.
Then, whilst chatting to the housekeeper at the staff table downstairs in the reception area of the building I live in, I set the black bag down, and then she brazenly reached over and attempted to open it.
The poor woman has missed her life’s calling – she should have been a street mugger, bank robber, or a pickpocket in the Paris Metro, she’s sure got the requisite nerve.
Same tune with the lady selling bánh tráng nướng (Da Lat-style grilled crepes made from large rice crackers with eggs, shallots, cheese, hot dog, and other goodies) down the street, who is out there every day rain or shine, plus has a husband and a house full of kids to care for.
She’s a great lady, funny as hell too, and I have deep respect for her, but I had noticed when we first met that she kept eyeing the bag when I strolled by until she could stand it no longer:
Lady: “Spit it out”
Lady: “What’s in the bag?”
Me: “Over my dead body.”
The irony of it all is her cute two-year-old is often the beneficiary of the bag’s contents but neither mommy nor little tot has put the puzzle together because I shift goodies from bag to pocket before I see them, which makes distribution easy.
What I hold in that black plastic bag is of little consequence, so should any local ever see the contents it would hardly be an earth-shaking revelation.
|Contents of the bag
Included are little cars that I buy from the đòn gánh (shoulder carrying pole) toy lady and give to kids in the neighborhood (actually to their parents so that risk of the kids choking is minimized), spongy pineapple roll cake thingies to give away to random people, and chocolate wafers when I can find them.
I also stock Tipo brand cookies for my favorite neighborhood doggie ‘Mit’ (which means jackfruit) who cannot eat chocolate because it upsets his tummy.
|Doggie Mit (WOOF!)
This whole scenario couldn’t possibly be more innocent yet I stubbornly cling to my privacy, such that until now the contents of the bag have remained a mystery to the neighborhood.
So that’s that, but then comes the intriguing part: There is always a flip side, the yin with the yang, the dominant and recessive, the source of all balance and harmony in the universe.
Without that offset we’d all drive each other bananas, so while the bag story and all the curiosity surrounding it are definitely bizarre, the care and attention accorded us foreigners by locals are right off the charts fantastic.
Take the Sapporo story – not the city on the northern Japanese island of Hokkaido, rather its heavenly namesake beer.
Some legendary aficionado decided to start brewing that golden nectar under license right here in Vietnam, and just like that my Tiger days were over.
Sapporo is marginally more expensive than local offerings, but what the hell, beer is beer, and no cost should be spared. I don’t smoke cigars, but it must be similar – if you want one, have a good one or don’t have one at all.
The satisfaction of that guilty treat is even more pronounced than usual since all attempts to travel to Japan have been thwarted over the last 2.5 years and the country still remains closed to independent foreign tourism.
|Heavenly Sapporo and ‘nem chua’ fermented pork roll
I even resorted to concealing cases of the heavenly lager behind other brands on the beer display in the supermarket, which, true to character, was immediately noticed by the staff:
“What’s that weird foreigner doing hauling around the Sapporo?”
“Hiding it, I think he loves it very much.”
“Why doesn’t he just buy it?”
“He does, but he lives in terror he’ll run out and we’ll have no stock.”
“He must have quite a stash at home by now.” (I do actually.)
I had just crossed the threshold into that supermarket the other day when one of the employees bolted across several aisles and sprinted up to me.
I thought the place was on fire, or at least under siege, but as it happened the guy remembered I’m smitten with Sapporo and had stashed a case in the back stockroom from the tail end of a recent shipment.
How that guy could remember me is a mystery, maybe it’s the melodramatic charade I pull off every time I need a case: I wobble around, bumping into displays whilst clutching my throat, as if dying of thirst, finally reaching an oasis after crossing the Sahara, rasping “Sapporo.”
He also spread the word – I stuck my nose in that stockroom another day and some guy I’ve never seen before said “Sapporo?” When I said yes, he zipped up the stairs, returning with a case in a jiffy.
That’s when I deduced the other guy had stashed the entire shipment of Sapporo earmarked for me.
It’s easy to see how those legendary Vietnamese observation skills often result in awesome customer service, and of course we foreigners are doted upon because we often blow money like drunken sailors in Shanghai.
So, we go with the flow for the most part, smile when people get a bit too inquisitive, and basque in the extra attention that comes along with it.
Chin up, there’s always a ‘yin’ to go with the ‘yang,’ we just have to keep an eye out for it.
Tip: If you’re headed up to this part of the Central Highlands, bring your own Sapporo, as it may be tough to find some.
Sorry about that, but you know how it goes, some of us will go to great lengths for a good brew.