I was out with my French friend Alex who was admiring a table of young Vietnamese women, one of them his flavor of the week (though monogamous, he has a steady stream of girlfriends, with never any break between relationships. Healthy, I know). "Les femmes Vietnamiennes", he says, "dress in a way that elsewhere in the world you would call them putes. But here, the men find that cute and irresistible". And it's true; whenever I go out, I notice the women are always dressed to the nines, mostly clad in as little amount of fabric as can possibly cover their skin without being too slutty, heels as high as they can go without toppling over.
There's a restaurant here that I like to go to, as their outdoor terrace reminds me of a Parisian bistro. It's comfortable and not pretentious. And I've come to realize it's a favorite place for older Westerners to meet their young Vietnamese Tinder dates. I'm not saying people over a certain age aren't allowed to find love (I myself am getting on in the age department). But what at first my friends and I all used to joke about has now crossed over into the Creepy Old Man Category. When I see a young Vietnamese girl shacked up with a Westerner three times her age, it makes me wince. I understand where they're both coming from, but it still makes me wince. It looks like the creepy old guy at the bus stop who just picked up his new prey. Except this time, the prey goes willingly and most often has the full support and emotional backing of her family.
Let's look at it from both sides:
The guy. Typically an American or Australian over the age of 50 (but more often, 60+). Retired, or running away from something back home (job, ex-wife, kids, alimony, police). In some cases he's been unlucky in love his whole life.
Enter the girl. Age: 18 - 22. Usually not from Saigon, but life back home in the provinces is so dismal with no chances. Most young people come to Saigon because there are no advantages and absolutely no future in their rural areas. I've spent some time outside of the cities to know that, while charming and unspoiled it is to visitors, the kids can't wait to leave. The girl is cute and speaks passable broken English. She's never wearing much: tiny little "dress", just short enough to not be considered indecent, and platform heels. She will fawn all over her Western date who is immediately smitten. No one has ever paid this much attention to him in his life, and he's lapping it up. One of my Australian friends is in such a relationship with a girl who came from utter poverty in the Mekong Delta. And though i'm happy for the guy, because in his eyes he's "finally found love", I still find it deeply saddening.
And then you get situations like the following. At dinner the other night, we just settled into our seats and ordered wine when a couple gets sat at the table next to us. Middle aged American guy with young Vietnamese woman, and it appears to be a date. There's a bit of that awkward first date "getting to know you" conversation going on.
"This is Italian. You know, from Italy".
"Oh... you eat here before?"
"Yes, with my German boyfriend I tell you about".
Chef's been doing the rounds greeting various tables, and comes over to greet them. "She's been here before", whines the American guy (boy, was he ever whiny). "Yes, with my German friend", she adds, looking at Chef. "You know him".
Chef walks away.
American, squinting at the specials board, "You wanna split somethin? They have spaghetti. Spaghetti-ohs! and ravioli. .... ravioliiii. Whatever".
Server comes by.
"I wan mineral water. Do you wan mineral water?", he says to the girl. "What is it?", she asks. ""It's got gas. You know". To server, "I wan San Paligro. San Pallagren. You know. Mineral water. San Pellegrano. You gotta have it. It's Italian".
"Yes sir we have that. A big bottle?"
"Two glasses. And I wan CLEAN ICE. And I wannna Wet Nap".
It's right about this time that I realize the dude is hammered.
"Sir?". The server is puzzled.
"Wet napkin". He mimics the movement of washing ones hands. "To wash my hands. My hands dirty. I wan clean hands!".
"Oh. We don't have those, but there's a lavatory right behind you".
"Oh. K... just gonna go wash hands", he says to his date. Staggers upon uneven footing, his boat legs aren't working properly. He's wearing a brand new Chinese-style white cotton shirt with frog closures, and though it's an ample amount of fabric, it stretches too tightly across his generous abdomen. He's also wearing black sneakers with socks pulled high up on calves, and a white Indiana Jones-style hat. Very typical tourist look. I look away quickly to glance at Larry. My eyes open wide and I mouth, "He's hammered". Larry: "I know".
He staggers back from the bathroom.
"My hands are dry", he whines. "Hand lotion. Gimme some hand lotion. You got any hand lotion in your bag? No? Oh. But all girls have hand lotion!".
This conversation is odd. Both Larry and I are totally eavesdropping; we have no shame. The guy's date speaks English particularly well, but he's talking to her like she's a small child, a prize if you will. Plus he's drunk and/or on something, because his speech tones go up and down throughout waves of whininess. He hits the head about four times during their meal. I notice she's conservatively dressed; this is very unusual. She's wearing a scarf, long sleeved shirt, polka dotted pants. And she's not as young as I originally assumed. I wonder what her story is.
Her: "Have you been to Italy?". Him: "Rome. I've not been to Venice. I wanna take ya to Venice". HIs voice tapers off into a low whine.
Their wine comes. "To new beginnings", he says, and they toast each other. That's when my interest piqued considerably. Kind of a strange thing to say to someone on your first date, no?
"So tomorrow", he continues, "It's 6 hours to Hong Kong. Then 18 hours to Newark. And our new life". She smiles.
So that's it. It isn't so much of a first date as it is a business transaction. This is the Vietnamese equivalent of a Russian mail-order bride. No wonder this guy is hammered. He's probably jet-lagged, jacked himself up on some pill or another to stay awake and pick up his goods, only to turn around and bring them back home immediately. I look at the girl with new interest.
Eventually he pays the bill and they get up to leave; he's bobbing and weaving all over the place. I wish her a silent prayer of good luck, but I know that she's probably moving on to a better place.