Vietnam had mesmerized by me by now. By the time I got to the romantic port town of Hoi An, halfway between Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, I was ready to rest for a while. Renting a bicycle for one dollar a day, I rode the few kilometers to Cua Dai Beach—and was increasingly pestered by young boys and girls to buy their wares the closer I got to the ocean.
"You buy! You buy!" one boy pleaded with me.
"You no buy, my mother beat me, na! You please buy, na!"
"What's your name and why aren't you in school?" I asked.
"Tranh is my name, selling my after-school game," he rhymed back perfectly with a smile.
Just one of the many lines these savvy young entrepreneurs came up with to make tourists part with their cash. I was fascinated by his broken-English ploys and his persistence. I cycled on without buying anything. Children were everywhere on the streets of Vietnam. Mothers carrying babies made it a point to encourage them to greet every foreigner they saw.
Come three o' clock when school was over, children would spill out onto the streets with their home-made wooden trays, and scatter across the villages, towns, or cities to sell, sell, sell. In the cities they hawked postcards, cigarettes, and bootleg photocopies of the Lonely Planet guidebooks. In the villages they sold straw hats and local souvenirs.
On the sandy beach, a group of five cornered me: two boys with Chiclets and imported cigarettes, and three girls with fresh pineapples, oranges, and dragon fruit, all in season. Tranh, who had followed me to the beach, was their leader. On a whim, I decided to try an experiment with him and his gang of entrepreneurs.
"If I promise to buy two things from each of you, you must agree to play on the beach for the next two hours. Okay?"
They all looked at me suspiciously at first. The questions were endless. What was I up to? How could they be sure I would keep my promise at the end of the two hours? What if their mothers caught them playing on the beach and not selling their quota for the day? They must leave before five o' clock for Hoi An City Hall to sell to the workers on their way home.
Once assured that I was sincere in my offer, they had a private meeting among themselves. When they came back, Tranh made me specify the two things I would buy from each of them, the price I would pay for each item, and when the playing time would be over. Finally, after twenty minutes, we concluded our negotiations.
Twenty minutes. Smiles all around. Back in 1973, it took Henry Kissinger and Le Duc Tho twenty days—while the killing continued on both sides—to agree on which directions the tables they sat at would face during the peace treaty in Paris. Later that year, both men were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the end of the war. Kissenger accepted the award; Le Duc Tho did not.
Once the deal was made, instant change came over the children. The wooden trays were put aside, the day's money tucked away in a safe place. Now the group morphed from business-minded entrepreneurs with daily goals and net profit to children wanting to play. Let the games begin. The piggyback tug of war, two per team in the lukewarm water, was an instant success. Even with strong Tranh on my back, we got toppled into the water by one other boy-and-girl team.
We rotated partners till all five of them had a turn on my back. Nothing but laughter. Their reminders of my promise to buy their goods were soon forgotten. Burying the strange-looking American from neck to toe in sand induced more peals of laughter. Even the old lady vendor sitting alone on the beach with her tray of Vietnamese sweet treats broke into a howl.
Next we started a race to build sandcastle replicas of Uncle Ho's Mausoleum. The sacred monument created by the girls—with the Vietnamese flag on top, borrowed from a nearby shop—was done and dusted before we boys were even halfway finished.
The hours passed and no one noticed until Tranh looked up at the sun and said something in Vietnamese. Instant change again. They morphed back into entrepreneurs and demanded their dues. I kept my promise and bought everything I said I would and gave them more dong notes for each item than what we had agreed.
At first they refused the extra money politely. Then, Tranh, always the leader, came up with a bright idea. Running over to the old lady, he used up all the extra dong to buy bags of sweet desserts. The old lady, quite taken aback by this sudden surge in business, beamed him the widest smile, exposing her teeth, rotten and blood-red from betel nut juice.
Half the sweets Tranh distributed among the gang, and the other half he gave to me. When it was time to leave, Tranh hugged me, the girls waved in unison, and the other boy gave me a thumbs-up sign before they all sped off to City Hall.
Only when they were out of sight did I realize that my rubber sandals next to my locked-up bicycle were missing. I looked all over but they were nowhere in sight. Had the kids really taken them? Had I been duped, after all? Minutes later, the old lady hobbled over to me, led me by the arm to a spot in the sand, and motioned for me to dig. As I unearthed my sandals, she cackled and pointed in the direction the children had gone.
On the ride back to town, one thought kept recurring: this old lady, the child entrepreneurs of Hoi An, —all were budding capitalists. Where were the communist hordes that had threatened America's free enterprise so frightfully that we had to destroy their country with bombs and napalm?