Tales from Bui Vien Street: Ten Dollars

I would like to tell you a story about Ten Dollars. Ten Dollars is not a thing or a quantity. Ten Dollars is a person. A street vendor who I have known for a good two years. He works in Pham Ngu Lao, the tourist district of Saigon in the early afternoon through to evening. Not as long as most of the people in that area, but he works in such a way as to be very noticeable.

He has an odd angle on selling goods to foreigners. Firstly, he has no range. He carries one or two products at the most. He will either have a pair of sunglasses or a watch. He does not, as other vendors do, try and ask how you are, or where you come from or anything. He just walks up, sticks a watch or a pair of sunglasses into your line of vision and yells, in the most croaky, 3-packs-a-day voice “Ten Dorrar !”

He has been doing this for years. He will carry a pair of imitation Ray Bans or an imitation Rolex and just ask people for “Ten Dorrar !” for it. Depending on what he has, he will likely drop it down to “Fai Dorarr !” and you can get something pretty cheap. His stuff is unusual in that you wonder where the source is. Some have suggested that they are stolen and others that they are rejects. Frankly I think the products don’t even matter.

When some vendors are low on stock you tend to think “Ahh, they had to pay lots of bills or debts (or drugs) this week”, but for Ten Dollars, it’s not like that. He doesn’t walk around as quickly as others. He isn’t on the streets for that many hours. He is just out for a laugh. Because he doesn’t seem to mind terribly if you don’t want to buy.

If you’re new, he will make a few attempts to coerce you, but he seems to make up his mind if you are worth his time in a few seconds or less. If you are not interested he will wave his hand dismissively and say “Bah !”, but if you look at what he has or make eye contact he will smile and say “Hey, my friend. Ten Dorrar !”

I have bought both sunglasses and watches off him over the years, because he tries hard enough to carry the best item he can and he is just plain funny. There may be games with him but it never involves pretending to be hurt or foisting guilt on you. Instead he will grin broadly and pat you on the back and show you what he has so proudly as if it was a half tonne blue fin tuna he’d just caught.

He just wants to entertain. So many people have said “Oh my god he’s a character”, “He is a local icon”, or “What a loveable nutcase” that I can’t count. Tonight one of my foreign friends here who is normally incredibly self-absorbed and socially awkward and really doesn’t give a cent to anyone said “This guy, I never want what he has, but I think it’s ok to give him a dollar for no reason because he is so fucking amusing. If you buy something you are not paying for what you buy. You are paying for his entertainment”.

He’s one of those guys who will yell out at you from behind, saying “Hey, my friend !” in his croaky voice before opening his eyes wide and puckering his lips and showing his wares like they were a rarely uncovered diamond. But he will not harass you. What he does is a tiny bit of street theatre. He is a parody of Vietnamese life. He will see you and grin and do his act, knowing full well you have no real interest in what he has, but because you might buy it anyway just because he is brightening up people’s lives.

I have no doubt that he has another job of some form, although I don’t know what. I wouldn’t even be surprised to learn that he was actually quite wealthy and that this was just his way of joking around and chilling out. His attitude certainly has that sort of tongue-in-cheek “I’m just doing it for the LULZ” attitude.

I met an Irish English teacher who told me that he had known Ten Dollars from at least 7 years earlier in another district of the city. He told me that Ten Dollars worked on a construction site, but that he was booze hound and needed extra money for rice wine, so he would go and sell stuff in the street, because just selling one item was enough to keep him in cheap wine for at least a day or two. He told me that that’s the reason Ten Dollars only carries one item, because he can’t be trusted with a whole range of products or else he will sell them off as cheaply as possible and drink up the proceeds, so the people he sources his products off only give him one item at a time to sell. He also told me how he was responsible for teaching him the phrase “Stick it up your arse”, which is something he apparently mutters under his breath as he walks away if someone has been rude to him. I have actually heard him having loud exchanges with folks from the UK who have said it to him as a joke and he will repeat it back to them and they will continue yelling at each other “No YOU stick it up your arse” until they both break into laughter. I’m not even sure he understands what it means, but it sure does get a laugh.

And lulz are what he produces. When he has been absent, I have said to people “I haven’t seen Ten Dollars in a while, have you ?” and just this evening my foreign friend surprised me by saying “I think, that guy can never die, because if he wasn’t here, this place would never be the same again”.

And it’s true. He is an icon of Pham Ngu Lao. One of the crazy folk who just mingles in with the daily life of the street and makes it so rich. A diamond in the rough and a king among men.

Here’s the “Rolex” that I bought off him today for about $6, and a couple of photos that my friend took of us during a late breakfast at a sidewalk Mexican restaurant in Bui Vien. The place where anything can happen, and frequently does.

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