The people you know

I haven’t mentioned it, but I damaged my camera a little bit on my way back from Hanoi. I was pulling up suddenly to take a photo of the amazing valley I was riding though… a little too suddenly, and I hit a tiny bit of dirt and of course the bike slid out from under me and I hit the road face first. Literally. I actually hit the ground with my face, although my hands and right knee took most of the brunt. I wasn’t hurt though. A little bruise on the face and a skinned knee. But of course I had my camera around my neck and it hit lens first.

At first I thought the lens would be fucked, but after turning the barrel a few times it seemed to be ok, albeit pretty stiff and a bit sticky to zoom, but it still focussed and worked.. it was just in poor shape. But the real problem was one I didn’t notice until almost a week later when I realised that the flash was broken. Not just the bulb, but seemingly the whole pop-up flash assembly was broken in some way.

So I took it back to my guy. His name is Khuong and he works at “Như Lễ”, a camera repair store in Pasteur street, District 1, and honestly… I would not trust anyone else with my camera. Khuong has saved my ass and fixed my camera so many times, not to mention just charging my batteries for free when I had no charger and didn’t want to buy a new one. I first took my camera to him after the lens was badly damaged on the plane to Singapore and he was like “Sure, no problem, give me 3 hours and I’ll repair it and it’ll only cost you $20, ok ?” and true to his word he made it as good as new. I’ve always taken my camera back to him when I’m in Vietnam because I know that he actually gives a shit and he will neither rip me off nor do some half-assed job. He would never give you back your camera in a less-than-perfect state.

So I took it in and asked about the flash. He was like “Oh. this is really expensive to fix, you know ? We have to replace this whole flash and mounting bracket. It’ll cost you 50 USD if you want that done. The camera I can clean for you, and I’ll fix the lens for $10”. The lens repair was obviously a great deal because it’d surely take him a few hours, but the flash repair hurt, because I didn’t want to spend $50 on something basic like that, but I had no choice, and without it I wasn’t gonna get any decent indoor or night shots. I left the camera with him and he took my phone number and patted me on the back and said “I’ll give you a call if there’s any problem, otherwise it’ll be ready for you tomorrow. Very good to see you again my friend”.

He did give me a call that night to say that he’d fixed the lens but was still waiting on the new flash to be delivered and that he’d call me tomorrow. True to his word, at about 11am he rang and said “Hi David. I have your camera all fixed. Good as new. Come down and pick it up if you’re ready”. I rocked up on my bike and he unlocked the cabinet and pulled out a Nikon that I swear looked brand new. My camera had been SO full of red dust from hitting the road in Laos, and it was in all the grooves and buttons and stuff. Khuong said “I cleaned it for you very carefully using chemicals. No dirt in the buttons anymore. And this rubber grip was coming off, so I stuck that back on. The lens focuses great and is nice and smooth like it should be. It’s still a little loose on the mount, but I think you’ve had the mounting bracked replaced on this, because it’s not a perfect fit anymore, but it doesn’t affect your pictures”. I said “Yeah, I did. In Thailand. I wouldn’t mind a new lens to be honest. This one’s been broken and fixed three times now. I’d love a new 18-200mm, but I don’t think I can afford one”.

He said “Yeah, I understand. We do have a Sigma 18-250mm here. It’s being replaced by the newer ones with VR on them, but if that doesn’t bother you, it’s not too expensive”. I asked how much and he went away and came back and said “Boss wants 6 million for it. I think it should only be 5 million. But, I know I can get you a really good Tamron 18-250mm lens with 14 times zoom and macro for 5 million from elsewhere if you want me to meet you and bring it to you ?” I said that sounded pretty sweet. I had read up on the Tamron, and while also lacking a vibration reduction feature on the older model (which tbh, has never really been an issue for me, and I often turn it off on my Nikkor lenses), that was a really, really good price and I’ve seen that lens sold in Australia for around $700, so to get it for $240 was just too good to pass up. I said “Yeah. I would like that. That lens would be really good for me because I wouldn’t have to carry two lenses all the time. I know it’s not as sharp as separate lenses, but it would be fine for what I do”. He promised to give me a call soon, and I headed off back home.

I stopped in at Santa for a beer. I just sorta had a hankering to just hang out on the street and chat to people. I thought maybe I could put up with a few vendors today because I was in a decent mood. Of course I attracted a lot of them. I bought a pair of sunglasses, even though I already had a pair. I ride a bike now, so if I break mine, then I need a spare pair handy without having to go out and look for them. They were just some fasionable but generic looking polaroid sunnies. A shoeshine guy came up, and rather than focussing on my shoes, he spotted that my leather jacket had a couple of worn spots on it from my road trip in Laos. He said “I polish for you… look” and he put a bit of his black polish on the sleeve and brushed it to show me that it would suit. He had another guy beside him who seemed to want to do the talking, and he said it would cost 500,000. Yeah, pig’s ass. No way am I paying $25 to have some guy rub some polish into my jacket. I wouldn’t have minded having it done, but I know those guys are the worst rip-off so I just kept saying no. And the price dropped. Firstly to 300,000 and then to 200,000 and when I vehemently said no, he dropped to 100,000. That’s not a bad deal, $5 to have someone clean and touch up your jacket, but $5 is $5 and I didn’t feel like paying it after having just spent so much on my camera. He asked me exasperatedly how much I would pay, and I said “nam muoi”, indicating that I would only pay $2.50 at most. He looked annoyed, but I didn’t care because I was more than happy to not have it done, but eventually he said “Ok” and I took it off and let him rub some polish into all the worn bits and gave it a general brush down. It was worth the $2.50 I paid, I’d say.

Khuong turned up on his motorbike with a plastic bag over the handlebars. He smiled and shook my hand and said “How are you ?” and I replied “Pretty good. Happy that my camera is fixed”. He pulled a brand new, boxed Tamron lens from the bag and reached for my camera to fit it on and he took a bunch of test shots at various distances and then passed it to me to try. I played with the super-smooth zoom on the barrel and took a few shots of my own. It was a very good lens for the money. I mean, when I bought my camera, I really wanted an 18-200 Nikkor lens, but they were like a grand and a half and I just couldn’t afford it compared to the cheaper cost of having two separate lenses to go from 18-55 and 55-300, so to get a very good quality Tamron that would do 18-250mm with 13.9 times zoom and macro shots down to 45mm for about $240 Australian ? That’s fucking great. It would mean a little less partying and eating at nice places, but unlike those things, this lens would last me for years, as long as I didn’t fuck it up in another motorbike accident.

I was very pleased and I passed Khuong the cash and asked if he wanted a beer. He said “Sure, but I’ll get the drinks ok ?” I dunno how much money he made on the lens, but I doubt it was more than about $20 at most even with his ability to get it wholesale, coz that lens is a lot more expensive elsewhere. We had a couple of beers and talked for about an hour. He said “I’m so happy to see you again here. I used to have an American friend here, but he went home, so it’s very good to see you still here and help you out because I don’t have many friends or family”. He went on to say that he was 43, and both his parents had passed away already and his wife had died 2 years ago, leaving him to raise his six year old daughter alone. He showed me a couple of photos of her as a baby and she was indeed an adorable looking kid with the whitest skin you’ve seen on a Vietnamese baby. Naturally they were good photos because Khuong had taken them himself as he used to work as a photographer for an American publication here in Vietnam. He said his father had sold and repaired cameras, so while it wasn’t his own family’s shop, he was still carrying on his dad’s tradition of fixing people’s cameras. I thought that was pretty cool, and I talked about my family and how my father and grandfather were both boat-builders and sailors, but that while I liked to travel, I didn’t do it by ocean. He was quite impressed by this and seemed to think that building your own boat and sailing around the world was a pretty amazing thing to do.

We talked for ages about so much stuff. A little bit about cameras, the price of electronics in various parts of Asia, and places around Vietnam. He made some comment about a nearby vendor who’d hassled us for some shit, saying he was obviously from Hanoi. I chuckled and said “Yeah, I can’t tell by the accent yet, but I can often tell from their face and skin. Girls mostly, but sometimes with guys. I sorta learned the difference after a little while here”. He said “You know, I have a place down in the Mekong. A big property with a house on it. I don’t live there though. I have a woman there who takes care of it and cuts the grass for me, but when I retire I will move down there. Have you been to the Mekong ?” “Yeah, a little” I replied. “I’ve been down to Vinh Long area. This little place about 100km south of Vinh Long called An Luong”. “Oh ! Yeah ! I know that place” he said. It was sorta cool because noone else I’ve ever talked to knows it because it’s really nowhere and doesn’t even rate a mention on Google Maps so it was nice that he knew the place, since it was the only place I’d really been in the Mekong, though I mentioned that I got down to Vung Tau from time to time and he agreed it was a nice quiet place.

He even added “David, if you’re still around next time I go, I’d love to take you down to my place in the Mekong. It’s very beautiful and quiet. I think you’d like to visit it”. “Sure, I’d love to” I said. “Give me a yell any time. I like to see new places, especially the countryside. Although every time I go down to the Mekong, people always try and get me married to some local girl”. He looked at me quizzically and I explained what had happened when I was in An Luong. He laughed and said “You should be careful about Vietnamese girls. They just want money”. “Yeah I know.” I replied. “I figured that out. The ones in Saigon especially. But I think the ones in the Mekong are better. They want money too, but at least they’re in it for the long term rather than Saigon girls who just want some quick cash and then move on”. Khuong nodded and said “Yes. You are right. The girls down there are much better and won’t leave you for someone else like the girls here in Saigon. You’ve obviously worked out a bit about Vietnamese girls”. I chuckled and said “Yeah, I’ve had a little experience with them over the last year and a half. Still looking for a good one so I can have a family, but not looking too urgently”. He nodded and said that was probably the best way.

Khuong seemed really happy to chat to me. He wasn’t just keen to sell me something and bugger off and I think he would really have preferred not to have to go back to work, but obviously he did. He said “Oh, I forgot. I was going to bring you a UV filter for that lens as well. Drop into the shop and I’ll give you one. No cost”. “Sure” I said. “I’ll probably drop in tomorrow or the next day most likely. Thanks for bringing the lens out to me”. “No problem” he said. “The boss would have sold you one that was overpriced and you’re a good friend and customer so I would rather get you a better lens for much cheaper than let my boss make an extra million dong for nothing. I’m glad you always come back. Always a pleasure to see you. I’ll get your beers for you. Hope to catch up again”.

He called me his friend a few times over the course of the day and it didn’t feel like he was just trying to flog me something. He didn’t try and sell me anything that I didn’t ask for specifically. At first I thought I should go to a big superstore if I wanted a lens, but I think in the long run, Khuong still would have done me a much better deal, because he wasn’t so concerned about how much profit he made, and was enthusiastic about what he did and really cared about my camera gear and also he just really enjoyed helping out a foreigner. He even expressed a strong desire to visit Australia but didn’t think it would happen while he had his daughter to care for. We shook hands and I promised to drop in and see him for the filter and he told me to stay in touch if I needed anything.

A lot of people I know here have no friends or family in Saigon. Templeton is always bitching about having no friends and having dramas with his family, and Twe has no family or friends here even though she doesn’t complain about it. But Khuong seemed just a little sad and lonely when he mentioned it and he seemed really happy to just hang out and have a beer and talk about stuff and I got the feeling I would probably pop up in his conversation from time to time as his “Australian friend” that he knew.

So I got my flash replaced, my camera cleaned from top to bottom, a couple of new lens caps, and a kickass new 18-250mm ultra-zoom macro lens for less than $300, and I had a great chat to Khuong and we shared photos of our kids and talked about the countryside of Vietnam for an hour. Pretty good day, and if you are reading this and happen to need camera repair in Saigon or some accessories or even someone to just charge your battery, do drop into Như Lễ Cameras at 124 Pasteur and ask for Khuong because he’s the only guy there who speaks good English and I’ve referred a few people to him in the past because there is noone I’d trust more with my beloved Nikon, and he’s also a great guy as well.

Meeting good people always makes you happy though. There’s so many people in the world who just don’t give a rat’s arse about anyone that when you find someone decent who goes out of their way to help you and wants to talk to you and share a bit of their life with you, you should value that because you don’t get it every day.

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