Sarah Van Boven

My friend Chad, who runs the Hanoi office of the American Chamber of Commerce, sounded a bit harried on the phone last night. This was because 110 AmCham members RSVP’d to today’s regular business lunch, instead of the usual eight or nine. The reason? A visiting expert from the States was here to discuss the finer points of the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement.

The signing of the BTA, as it is apparently going to be called, seems to have cheered up the foreign community a bit. The suits are hopeful the pact will open up new markets for exploitation (a value-neutral word at my newspaper, something which shocked me at first but which I’ve come to appreciate for its frankness). The few journalists I know here are thrilled, of course, to have something to write about. The 25th anniversary celebrations for the Fall of Saigon/National Liberation Day generated plenty of copy but were pretty darned boring from this side of the Tonkin Gulf. My favorite bit in the television coverage occurred early in the day, when a television camera strayed from whatever weird bit of choreography was going on on the stage outside the Reunification Palace to the crowd–where the 500 or so credentialed foreign reporters and photogs outnumbered Vietnamese citizens by a good measure.

I suppose it’s naive of me to hope that some of those citizens will actually be affected in some way by the BTA. I’m still waiting for the day when I’m no longer astonished by how hard people work here for so little. From before dawn until long after dark, Hanoi’s streets are thronging with “entrepreneurs.” Too poor to have your own shop? Put a dozen tiny plastic stools on the street with a few tables and you’ve got a restaurant. Get chased away? Pack the stools into one side of a set of balancing baskets, your ingredients and even a little charcoal stove onto the other, and off you go. Any bicycle, however decrepit, can be transformed into a mobile shop. If I sat on my front stoop long enough, I could buy virtually all my groceries, a dozen roses, a new pair of plastic shoes, and a bonsai, and get my knives sharpened, shoes fixed, and trash recycled while I’m at it.

The most ashamed I’ve been of my relative affluence here has come on nights when I’ve left Apocalypse Now in the wee hours of the morning and set off on the short walk home with my pal Tonio, who lives nearby. (This club, usually referred to as simply the Apocalypse, is the only venue in Hanoi that plays decent dance music until dawn–not that this excuses my patronage of the place. It is a Vietnam War-themed bar. In Vietnam. And it is a smash success. I have yet to ask the sad-eyed hookers thronging the dance floor what they think of the chopper blade ceiling fans, skull motif, or blood dripping down the light fixtures.) Four-thirty in the morning may be a late night to us, but at that hour the women who have been biking in from the provinces on old clunkers laden with heavy baskets of produce since midnight are just reaching our street. Excuse me, can anyone tell me how the BTA will help them?

Now, for a gritty bit of “Diary” verité, the reason I couldn’t go to the AmCham lunch to raise such sophomoric questions myself: I was at the hospital. Ambushed around 1 a.m. by the most brutal stomach flu I’ve ever experienced, I spent the next 12 hours locked in a dehydration death match. Things were so wretched down there on the bathroom floor that by dawn that I was actually having nostalgic conversations with myself in which I reminisced about other, less brutal illnesses. (“Remember when you had pneumonia?” “Gosh, that was so great–I could drink as much water as I wanted.”) This also seemed like a good time to contemplate the realities of living in a developing country where there is no 911 and no ambulances. Wake up after an accident in a municipal hospital and you may have to beg the staff to wipe the blood of the previous patient off your gurney–in Vietnamese, of course, so you’d better practice those tones.

Luckily, I have two friends from the States staying with me right now who were far too smart to listen to my quavering protestations that a 104 degree fever wasn’t that hot. So, a big shout out to the Korea-Vietnam Friendship Clinic, where two hours on an IV drip of rehydration solution and a giant shot of pain reliever in the butt cost only $30. Now that I’m safely back in bed, it would probably be petty to mention the hour-plus spent lying in a heap on the waiting-room floor, teeth chattering as I tried to beg the mothers around me to take their defenseless infants as far away as possible.