Roses in Saigon – Nam and Lynne’s story

You know Nam and Lynne right ? If you have ever followed my blogs for more than a couple of weeks consecutively it’d be surprising if you didn’t know who they were by now. Nam and Lynne were my rose kids.

Since the first time I ever stepped foot into Pham Ngu Lao, Nam was there, joking and smiling and offering me roses. He was this hilarious little Vietnamese guy of only about 8 years old back then. One of the first local people I really met beyond some guy who took me somewhere on a motorbike, although really all our realtionship consisted of was he would find me drinking at a bar somewhere and come up and ask me if I wanted to buy a rose.

We developed this amazing game when I had noone to give a rose to and I said to him “You know that new French bar around the corner I go to ? Go there. Take a rose and give it to any waitress. You choose”.

“Give to who ?” he asked me.

“I don’t know. You choose” I said, not really understanding how to talk Vietnamese-English at that time.

“Up to me ?” He asked.

“Yes. Exactly. Up to you” I said. And that became the start of something. For as long as that bar was open and I was in the country, I gave him money and he would run and take roses to the nearby “Rhum House” in Do Quang Dao street, owned by the French bar-fly Cyrille and the Dutch pilot TJ and give one or a dozen flowers to some girl there, until the bar was full of flowers and Cyrille was mad at me for having had to buy so many vases for them all, and my name would spread among all the new waitresses even before I visited.

I resisted buying flowers from Lynne. I didn’t know her. Nam was my little man and I always bought off him. One, three, a dozen. But I spent some nights out late and Lynne, who worked the after midnight shift sometimes came and amused people at some local bars where I would hang out and sometimes DJ. She was a silly little kid at the time, always willing to do something dumb to impress people, not really seeming to care whether she sold anything or not. She just seemed thrilled at the prospect of chatting to people. I first met her when an Irish girl who I had been camping with saw her run up and gave her the hugest hug.

She might have had an affinity for Irish girls because one night much later I was at another bar drinking with three of them at around about 2:30am and Lynne was there with us, sticking cotton tips into every orifice of her face for a laugh and joining in games as we all tried to pass a small stick for stirring drinks from person to person using only our upper lip and our nose.

The following year, I got engaged (only briefly as it turned out) to a Cambodian girl who I knew from the area. I remember that on our engagement night, we ended up at one of the local bars in the street that I had never been to, nor have ever been to since (primarily because I was so drunk that I have zero recollection which bar it was !). We were laughing and drinking with friends at around 4am when Lynne came skipping in (as she did) carrying flowers and we all picked her up and held her upside down and she posed in many of our photos. I commented to someone that I didn’t buy roses off Lynne because I bought off Nam. They looked at me and replied “Didn’t you know ? They are brother and sister”. My heart was both happy and sad at the same time. I had been ignoring her all this time and favouring her brother. Lynne was one of us now. She was in all my engagement photos.

After that I had to start buying flowers off Lynne regularly. It became a battle at one point, with Nam and Lynne and Phuoc (one of the other kids who worked with them who Nam used to chase through the alleys and street-side travel agents and cafes playing tag), all fighting to gain my attention. I had already known Nam and Lynne for a couple of years at that point so I really didn’t have the ability to also buy from Phuoc very often and I would always tell him “Sorry. I promised Nam I would buy from him today”.

But they still tried to play favourites. They started giving roses to me for free. At first just at the end of the night. Lynne was the first to do it for me, just walking up as I was crossing the road and saying “Here, David. This is for you” and I went “Oh my god Lynne. You want to give me those dozen roses for free ? That’s so sweet of you !” even though they were sometimes a little frazzled by that time of night, being cast-offs from the Ben Thanh flower shops in the first place. One night I bought so many and got given so many that I ended up with 40 roses ! I employed some of my nearby drinking buddies in a game to just surprise random strangers with an act of kindness by walking up to them and giving them a rose for no reason.

Nam and Lynne’s roses brightened up a lot of people’s lives. I gave them to the 86 year old woman who served me beer in the afternoons. To the banh mi lady around the corner. To the woman who sold me quail eggs when I drank. To my cleaning lady. To children sitting on the back of motorbikes while their father stopped to buy fresh crabs on Bui Vien. I gave them to my first fiance in Vietnam. I gave them to random waitresses at bars. I gave them to girls I was vaguely in love with so many times as a funny gesture of affection that I thought might endear me to them. Years later, I gave them to the girl who became my wife. Before we were engaged, she slept downstairs in the lobby of my apartment and when I came home late at night, I would unwrap a single rose from the plastic, remove the lowest leaves, and lay it beside her as she slept. It was our courting ritual, and it was thanks to Nam and Lynne.

Some people I talked to in other countries said “That’s so cruel, making young children work on the street selling roses all night long and not even going to school”. I was not sure about this, but I one day asked Lynne if she went to school. She said “No”. I asked “How long DID you go to school ?” and her answer was “Four years”. But these kids were immensely smart. They were street-wise and they spoke brilliant English. I will never forget the first time I ever met Nam when he walked up to the huge dreadlocked British guy I was drinking with and said “Hey ! Do you want to buy a rose for your boyfriend, you big gay bastard ?”. I laughed so hard I nearly choked on my beer and I vowed silently to always buy a rose off this hilarious young kid. Nam’s knowledge of English humour and sarcasm were almost beyond any adult Vietnamese person that I knew.

I had said very early on that one of my dreams would be to come back in ten years time and hopefully find Nam in some awesome job in the area, running a bar as the chef or bar supervisor and say “Hey Nam. Do you remember me ? You used to sell me roses on the street when you were eight years old” I even tried to do a little documentary on them at one point and I tried to point a camera at Nam and ask him some questions, but he sort of clammed up and would answer with anything but a nod or a shake of his head.

Towards the end of 2012, things started to get a bit tense. At one point in early September I mentioned to Nam that I was going to Australia for a month or two. Nam told me “I not see you again”. I asked “What ? Why ?” He just said “Go home”. He didn’t say much more and I was unsure of his meaning or whether he meant just for a holiday or forever. I later asked Lynne. She said “I go back to Hue”. I realised they were going for good and I was heartbroken. I asked if there was anything I could do for them both. Nam shook his head. He wanted nothing. But Lynne, as a typical Vietnamese girl, said “I don’t have clothes for the new year”. I knew she had grown a lot. I remembered that in the four or five months I had been out of the country she had grown so much that I almost didn’t recognise her. I said “Come back tomorrow Lynne. I will have something for you. What size are you ?”.

I went out the next day to the area in District 3 where I used to buy clothes for my own daughter when I first came to Vietnam and I bought her a half-dozen dresses in the style she usually wore, but in larger sizes. It was a cheap area, so the whole lot cost me only around $25 for five or six dresses and a cute hat, and the next night at just after midnight, Lynne came skipping into the bar where I was DJ’ing to find me and I grabbed the bag I had sitting by my feet and I handed it out for her to open. She put the hat on and held the dresses up to her body to show me, laughing at how some of them were several sizes too big, but it was the thought that counted.

I left Vietnam briefly, saying goodbye to them both, and it was with massive relief that when I returned only about six weeks later, they were still there. Something had changed and they were staying. There was still something funny about their attitudes though. Nam in particular was not the bubbly kid he once was. I remember one day, passing him in the street after going to get a sandwich and going “Hey man” and holding my hand out for a high five. He jokingly pulled his hand away and didn’t give me one. I laughed and said “Oh, not buying a rose from you today then” and continued walking. Later I bought a dozen from Lynne when she cornered me at a bar I went to and gave me two dozen for the price of one dozen.

When Nam appeared beside me at the street bar an hour or so later I felt so guilty when he looked down and saw my two dozen roses. He asked “You buy from Lynne ?”

“Not all. I buy one. She give me one for free”.

Nam stopped and looked into space. His bottom lip trembled and he looked at me and stamped his foot and said “You ALWAYS buy from Lynne. Not buy from me !”.

I was unsure what to do. I tried to find the words to say that I often bought from him, but I knew that what he was saying was that I tended to buy the larger, more expensive bouquets from Lynne, but that was because often that was all she carried, but it was lost on him. Tears started running down his face. He couldn’t hold it in anymore and he just ran away. I felt so miserable. Some friends tried to dismiss it, but I couldn’t help it and I went home feeling awful. Nam meant so much to me as a friend I saw every day and seeing him cry like that broke my heart.

I remember so clearly the time when I had been drinking with some girls and talking about Nam and they told me that some Canadian guy had struck him over the head an hour earlier with a beer bottle. I was horrified. I said “What do you mean ? They hit a nine year old child over the head with a beer bottle ? What the fuck ?!” They explained that while it had not been hard, the guy was drunk and an asshole and he was not receptive to Nam’s jokes and had picked up an empty bottle and hit him on the head with it and Nam had run home crying. My blood boiled. I asked for a description of the guy and where he drank and I vowed to find him and kick his arse until it bled. Noone beat up on my best little 9 year old friend. Noone that wanted to live a life with all their adult teeth in-tact anyway. Luckily for the guy he wasn’t seen around there again before he left, but it didn’t stop my sudden feeling of protectiveness over my two friends.

Late into the second year I knew them, Nam turned up at the local bia hoi place one day with his hat hung low over his face. He had the biggest, most purple bruiser I have ever seen in my life. I didn’t do him the injustice of asking how he’d got it. There’s only one way a 9 year old can get a bruise like that right on his eye and it’s not by accident. I just asked him if it hurt and if he was ok. True to himself, he nodded that he was fine and that it was no problem. But inside, my heart screamed because I knew that this was something I could not do anything about. There was noone I could beat up to make this right. It was a personal matter.

I already knew by that time that Nam and Lynne were adopted children. They were not even really brother and sister. They weren’t even legally adopted. They just had a caretaker that they referred to as their mother. I asked them both individually if I could teach them English in their spare time, but both came back and said their “mother” wouldn’t allow it.

It was not long after Nam had his second black eye (only a few days after the bruises from the first one disappeared) that I didn’t see them for a little bit. Just a couple of days at first. I hadn’t seen Lynne much recently because I hadn’t been out late enough but I was more concerned for Nam’s welfare. He came into a little girly bar that I was playing at (to nobody in the bar as it was empty. I was actually streaming on the internet) and ran up and smiled at me and just said “Hey. How are you ?” and I felt bad for not having much money on me, so I just bought one rose at the already discounted price of 10,000 dong as I had been paying for the last couple of years while everyone else paid 15,000. Nam gave me four.

That was the last time I saw either of them. I got married and stopped going out so often and I assumed maybe I had just missed them. But as the weeks wore on I knew that wasn’t it. I asked a few friends and they shrugged and said “It’s almost Tet. They have probably gone home to their family”, although I was unsure about that since I knew they didn’t have close family which is why they were here in the first place and also it was at least a month before the new year.

Finally I asked Ai, my book vendor friend who is my eyes and ears on the area to find out for me. I said “Ai. Where are Nam and Lynne ? I have not seen them in weeks. I am not sure if they have gone home early for new years. Can you find out ?”

Today, Ai came and gave me the story. Their caretaker/boss had been arrested for beating and abusing them and sometimes even burning them with lit cigarettes. As Ai tried to explain it to me in her broken English with her severe speech impediment I interrupted her gruffly and said “No. I know about that. Don’t tell me about that please. What happened ?” She mimed throwing handcuffs on herself and told me the person taking care of them had been sent to prison. I nodded and said “That’s good. And Nam and Lynne ? They have gone home ? To Hue ?” She said “I think so. They are not here anymore. Their boss who hire them will never sell here anymore and the boy and girl have gone away to live with family somewhere”.

I just nodded and walked home deep in thought. It wasn’t until later tonight that I was thinking about my own daughter who I missed so much because she lived far away with her mother and whom I had not seen in a long time that I started to think about how, in the last couple of years, Nam and Lynne had taken that role and become like my own children. I had treated them like my own kids. Buying them gifts, food and snacks, playing with them, joking, taking funny pictures and looking at old pictures with them, making both of them cry out “Troi oi ! That picture so old ! I so small then !”

It’s still my hope that I can track them down. This is a huge country of close to 100 million Vietnamese residents, but I at least have some idea where they might be. I always thought they were two of the smartest Vietnamese kids I’d ever met and that they would go far. They will stand out. Plus, I have photos and this country is very tightly knit so I am confident that someone will know them.

They’re not my kids and I’m not trying to pretend they are, despite what some people have claimed. They’re just my friends. We shared good times and laughs and it was irrelevant that they were just street vendors and I was just a middle aged guy drinking beer on their turf. We had a certain connection because we talked to each other. When they had a bad day, I had a bad day. When I was feeling depressed, Lynne would come skipping down the road with a smile on her face or Nam would sneak up behind me and cover my eyes with his hands while I pretended not to know who it was.

Nam and Lynne were part of my everyday life for more than two years and they featured in dozens of my stories and photographs. As friends and tourists came and went, Nam and Lynne were always there. They were the most constant part of Saigon life for me in all the time I’ve lived here and it’s tragic that they’ve moved on although I’m naturally happy that they’re no longer being abused, but I still have some hope that I can track them down in their new life and talk to them. I just don’t want to lose contact with them because both the journalist and the father in me just scream out “These kids are special. You don’t want to let them go ! Find out how their life turns out. Be a part of it !”

Sometimes things just happen. Paths just cross. Sometimes for a little while, sometimes forever, and sometimes they criss-cross back and forwards. I still firmly have the belief that one day I will see Lynne as a beautiful grown woman and Nam as a proud, foreign-speaking man and I will be there to say “I saw you grow from so little and now look at you !”

So that’s my toast to Nam and Lynne. I myself have no less than 5 vases in my house, and at times I even had to use wine bottles and other things to house the many roses I bought or was given. I gave them to lovers, friends and strangers from 6 years old to 86 years old.

Nam and Lynne have no idea how much they touched people’s lives, even indirectly. Best of luck to them and I hope so much that I see them again and this is not the end of their story. I could show you hundreds of photos of them, which would make it so hard to pick my favourites, so I’m just going to show you one each.

To my good friends Nam and Lynne who brightened my day for more than two years and kept all of Pham Ngu Lao, and my house especially, in flowers. Because a rose from any other child would never smell as sweet. Saigon will never be the same without you around and my home and my life will never be as beautiful and filled with flowers.

For Nam and Lynne. My special friends.

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One Response to Roses in Saigon – Nam and Lynne’s story

  1. Pete says:

    One of the main reasons these children are begging on the streets of Bui Vien is that idiots like you buy flowers off them thus ensuring they’ll continue to be exploited. You going to be purchasing Lynn’s body when she graduates from street kid to prostitute?

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