Red River Blues
I went out with L. for the second time recently. The first time we went for bia hoi and billiards. This time he met me at my new place before we set out for dinner. L. is the student from Hai Phong Jon and I met three years ago while watching the Hanoi circus perform outside at a stage on Hoan Kiem Lake, and we kept in touch ever since.
L. is poor and has no moto, so he asked if it was okay for us to do things on foot. I thought maybe we could first have a beer at my place, but he did not seem very comfortable there. He entered tentatively, and was surprised that I would not be sharing with roommates. He also asked about my rent. I've since been told by expats that it is usually best not to answer the rent question. It's a question that pops up and a truthful answer just creates an awkward situation (despite the fact that rent is cheap by our standards). The prudent answer is: "I don't know. The company/university/employer pays for it."
There are some okay hole-in-the-wall joints in my neighbourhood but if you are making a night of it, it's best to head north towards the centre for a more dynamic dining experience. L. suggested bun bo near the Hang Da Market. Hang Da bun bo kicks ass, but it ain't close. It was about a 40 minute brisk walk. I worked up a big appetite in the process. Now it's hard to walk more than about 30 seconds in this city without the pith helmeted xe om drivers draped over their bikes (sometimes lying horizontally across them) calling out to you. We considered taking a moto taxi to cut the journey short, but L. didn't think it was necessary. I assumed he was more comfortable being able to pay his own share of the evening. So we walked to the noodle house.
After dinner we sat around a cafe on Bao Khanh drinking sua chua ca phe (a yoghurt, coffee and crushed ice drink). It was all quite pleasant until his phone rang and his whole demeanor changed during the ensuing conversation. I asked him if everything was alright and he said yes, and we continued our conversation for a few minutes until he could bear it no longer. It turns out his younger brother T.'s girlfriend had just called to let him know that there was trouble. T. is a bit of a bad apple it seems and has developed a gambling problem already by the young age of 21. Every year or so T. gets in way over his head and loses a fortune. My friend L. usually tries to protect his mother from the shame and burden of it all by finding a way to dig his brother out of his debt. This night's newly acquired debt was 30 million dong (approx. CN$2200). This in a country with an average monthly income of approximately CN$60. With this amount L. could buy two motos. L. was too disturbed to go on. He excused himself to go find his brother whose location was unknown. I don't even want to think to what kind of shady characters were looking for him. I hoped on a xe om and headed home.
Over the next few days I told this story to a few friends. The response was always cynical. Vietnamese and expat friends worried that this was all a set-up, a fabricated story and that I should expect to get a call in the next couple days asking for money to help bail out the brother.
It's not like there isn't reason to be cautious about scams around here, and I appreciate the advice I have been getting from friends. But how do you strike the right balance and avoid the pitfalls of naivety and paranoia? It's true that the set-up in this situation seems classic, but what about the fact that I have known L. for three years (albeit mostly through email)? There is also something to intuition. L. is incredibly warm and generous with me, and has always been concerned that I am experience only the best of Viet Nam. He frequently calls me "brother".
The problem with caution is that sometimes the cost of such protection is greater than the risks. I might be willing to lend L. $100 or $200 (but not $2000) if he asked and if I really thought it could make a difference. Call me naive. I might never see it again, and there is a risk that I'd be taken advantage of. On the other hand, what is the cost of shutting down on people and closing your heart to the possibility of real need? That is probably a cost paid by many an expat. I think I would rather lose a couple hundred dollars. It's only money, not integrity.
Five or six days went by without hearing from him. Finally I text messaged him to see how he was doing. He texted me back from Hai Phong where he had gone to be with his family and try to pick up some pieces. He thanked me for thinking of him and wrote to me saying, "You always help me in hard times. Your support means a lot to me."