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'Nam The Price

"Why you no buy from me?" Her eyes, shaded by the ubiquitous 'non' - that conical bamboo hat worn everywhere here in Vietnam, become mock-angry, her lip draws down into a pout.

She wants to sell me a T-shirt - five sizes too small, in a style I would never wear, and a colour and pattern I dislike - but she just cannot understand why I am resisting her sales pitch.

"Two dollars," she insists, "I give you two. Very 'sheap'."

Neither she nor any of her colleagues touting nons, postcards, or Lonely Planet guides to Vietnam (pirated and printed in India I am told) can understand the Western mind. How, if the price is right, can you NOT buy?

But what they lack in comprehension they certainly make up for in persistence. These vendors do it tough. One chased us for two hours offering just two items: a zip-down cabin bag and a green and yellow nylon hammock. I hated both and would have needed him to pay me to accept them - no, I decided, not even then! I tried to make this clear to him - kindly - but he materialised at every turn, ever hopeful.

Outside the marvellous water puppet theatre - a must-see for adults and children - a young man, his upper lip bristling with an early moustache, tries to be my friend. He has just an ersatz Lonely Planet Vietnamese phrasebook, and a few postcards. I need neither.

"Sorry," I say, "Good luck!"

"Everyone says that," he replies, "but it is so hard for me." And he's right.

As we travel the country, through first Hanoi then the officially named Ho Chi Minh City that people abbreviate to HCMC or simply revert to its previous name, Saigon, we swap ideas of 'worst jobs'.

Foot massager comes high on the list. There are many small parlours in either city, offering to knead away your tourist foot-soreness, but then we think of the life of a water puppeteer. These people stand waist deep in greenish water for hours a day manipulating their painted wooden characters from behind the curtained screen. They bring endless enjoyment to locals and visitors, but it must be a soggy way to earn your living.

Even a rice farmer would rate low on the fun factor. We saw them often, bent double, painstakingly planting the shoots. We were told the grain is scattered then left to germinate, and then the tiny sprouts are replanted in the muddy rows.

And then there are the beggars and amputees.

'US did this' said the sign on one man waving a stump at us from the footpath as we passed. Agent Orange reminders are everywhere too. We were told there are 726,000 people still affected by it, and at an embroidery village, we saw dozens of young people with varying disabilities, involved in making the most beautiful embroidery pictures, skilfully transcribing pictures with silk thread using just a postcard for guidance. Somehow, the beauty they created made their deformities seem less noticeable.

But those street vendors are right up there for sheer stickability and persistence.

"Where you from?" is the inevitable opener.

One time, I answer then turn it back on the young man asking me. "Where are you from?"

"New Zealand," he says without hesitation or even a smile, then continues, unphased, with his spiel.

You have to admire these people who just a few decades ago lost millions in the war. The Vietnamese revere the phoenix, and its shape appears on many pictures and designs. They say it symbolises beauty - particularly womanly beauty. To us it also speaks of rising from destruction, resilience and gutsy determination. This war-torn country embodies both.

The beauty of course is everywhere: in elegant handcrafts and fashions, the flowing lines of the ao dai, the national dress, magnificent galleries filled with paintings and craft, and the women themselves, slender and dignified. The regrowth is apparent too: modern glass and concrete buildings, schools spilling out white uniformed youngsters at the end of either the morning or afternoon classes, and Vietnam Airlines, a Qantas partner, with its fleet of 26 aircraft including Airbuses and 767s.

There are the glitches of course, inevitable in a country grappling with modernity, playing catch-up with the western world that largely abandoned it for decades after the end of the war. It was only in 1994 that the US lifted its trade embargo, for instance, so there is much lost ground to make up.

Our concierge at the New World Hotel in HCMC - a glittering five-star edifice - warns us (twice) to watch our bags and cameras on the street because of bag-snatchers.

The traffic in this eight million population city is horrendous too. Thousands of motorbikes and bicycles and the odd car or truck or bus interweave as if practicing for a demolition derby. You have to have nerves of steel to cross through all of this.

"Just walk slowly, steadily," I am told. "They will work their way around you."

They do of course and it is yet another metaphor for the country. Vietnam may appear a little chaotic, but there is sense to it, and the locals know what they are doing. Slowly, steadily it's coming together, and I am happy to have seen it now before cars replace the motor cycles, before the effects of the Western world erase the essence of this special place, while there is still time to haggle with the street vendors and maybe come away with a bargain that suits us both.




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