Absurd, crazy stories of love in the new Saigon provide inspiration for this short story: The Viet Kieu Casanova. This is a section of that story:
Section 1: The Shopkeeper
This Viet Kieu comes into my cafe and store usually three, four times a week. He’s in his 30s I think, and he brings with him a new girl each time he comes, buys her a gift. Then, they leave. It’s an old routine. The girls are always 20 something, freshly made up, with the new bodies I see now on Vietnamese women, a little fitter, bigger, firmer butts. They’re the ones I always see on instagram, or in cafes taking selfies, or at the gyms in the city barely breaking a sweat, flirting with the trainers, also taking selfies. Many of them are part time models, I’d guess.
How exhausting it is to be young and single. It was different in my days, and I met my husband when we were young and in school together. It all feels so different now.
I think this guy made some money from living abroad. Or he’s here on a long holiday, because it takes a lot of effort and work to take a different girl to the shop each time. Think of the planning that goes behind it. Imagine having to remember all that you’ve told to each girl, and all that you’ve done, all of your different stories, and with whom you said and did these things with. It must get exhausting!
My shop is on a busy stretch of Saigon’s new walking street. When I started it with my business partner there was construction all over the street to turn it into a pedestrian friendly zone, so we didn’t have many customers then. The rare people that did come, would sit down, sip their coffee, complain about the noise, and leave. But we stuck with it because I knew, once all this work on the street was finished, we’d get plenty of visitors. The trick was to figure out when construction would get done, because the government always promises quick completion times for their projects but they always get delayed, so the date keeps stretching into the unforeseable future, and we all wait, all of us in limbo. Everyone waiting. Like the girls and this Viet Kieu, each one of them waiting to see if their investment leads to some return.
Who ever knows when you can get what you put into your business back? Who knows when you can make some money finally. You just keep working and hoping for the best. That’s what my partner and I did.
So we took that time cleaning up the shop while the construction went on, designing the space and making it look inviting. We thought quite a few of the teens would come in for pictures next to our design, which is pretty hip and colourful. We didn’t want the industrial chrome look of a lot of the new cafes that are opening now in the city, that Scandinavian emptiness, or the frilly, girly set pieces that look like they belong in a museum or a stage. We wanted something original, and warm, and inviting. Wood, dark metal, cushions.
With all that work put in designing for potential customers, I never thought my store and cafe would turn into a revolving door for Viet Kieus chasing girls, or for those western and newly rich Asian expats on the hunt, and the Saigon girls who, in turn, chase them.
One day, I’m completely serious, one day we saw two different guys, two regulars, buying the same gifts they usually bought, but at different sections of the shop, arm in arm with their newest girls. The old white guy in one corner, looking at shirts but making his way to the bracelets and gifts section with his girl; the other guy, a Korean, at the other end, making his way to the cash register. The girls were all smiles. It took all our effort, my shop attendants and I, to keep ourselves from laughing.
I do feel bad sometimes, or a little conflicted. White expats, Korean expats, Viet Kieus, they all bring their girls here, knowing that I know. They trust that I’ll be discreet, and I am. But I feel like my discretion makes me complicit. That’s part of keeping a store, you have to keep your mouth shut and smile, even if you want to say something. And the truth is they’re amongst my best customers, these foreign wanna be casanovas. They keep the engine of our economy churning. We haven’t done a separate account category for expats or Viet Kieus buying gifts for young Viet girls, probably because it would sound silly, but I’d bet it’s a good portion of our daily take.
I keep telling myself I’ll tell the girls some day, when the guys aren’t looking. I see some of them get real emotional when they get a gift, especially that bracelet, and I feel like grabbing them and saying: “He does this three days a week with a different one! Little sister, you’re one amongst hundreds!” or “You’re the third crier I’ve seen this month. Get over it already!”
My husband says to me: Troi oi, em oi, don’t tell the girls! You’re not deceiving anybody. In fact, I’ll bet you anything, em, I’ll bet you anything that most of the girls know too. They’re just playing along. One hundred percent sure.
He says, “Some of them, I guarantee you, have a collection of these bracelets. Saigonese women, em, don’t you know?”
And we laugh. I don’t know if he’s right or I’m right. I never tell them. I keep the shop and watch the routine happen, daily, without fail and without a break in between. It’s especially busy during holidays, and at Valentines Day, you can’t imagine the scene!
The Viet Kieu is in the store right now. He goes in first, and the girl comes in some time after. He has on those aviators, which seems strange on an Asian person. Strange also, considering we keep shop pretty dimly lit inside.
The two look at the bracelets. It’s nothing, has no cost at all, these little bindings. Colorful cloth woven together, not quite two USD. Cost us even less to make.
He grabs a bracelet from the shelf and presents it to the girl. The way he considers the bracelet – weighing its merit, pretending to think in his mind whether it fits the girl’s personality – is slow and deliberate. He goes through the same gesture of consideration each time, with each girl. He chooses the bracelets, for all the girls he’s brought the bracelets for, in the exact same manner.
Section 2: The Viet Kieu
*Story is 1/3rd done. Currently working on it, but I will not be publishing it on this blog once I’m done. Just thought I’d post this section here for anyone interested in reading. Thanks!