A Cracking Good Time

from : a street corner in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

The streets of Vietnam's towns and cities are full of vendors, peddlers and salespeople providing almost every day to day product one might ever have a need for. Most of them can always be found in the same spot, such as the newspaper seller, the sidewalk restaurant and my beloved 'Bia Hois', while some of them move to a different positions on the same street; the baguette seller, lottery ticket saleswomen and bicycle repair men. There is also the small group of roving shopkeepers who count amongst their ranks the popcorn poppers, the shoeshine boys and the dried seafood sellers. Finally there is the segment of street vendor society that seems to hearken back to what I imagine existed in London in the 17th and 18th centuries - the hawkers. These are the men and women who pass up and down the streets crying out a singsong refrain or making a specific sound that heralds their passage. Residents call out from a window or doorway and business is conducted.

In every city we visited, for every hawker's signal we came to understand, there was one we could not decipher. In Hanoi we had learned that the tapped rhythm of metal on metal was the noodle seller but the significance of the duck-like honk from the horn of another vendor eluded us. In Hoi An the musical lilt of the brush seller became familiar while the cries of others remained foreign. In Saigon we were tormented each evening by the young men riding the streets on their bicycles with nothing to represent their services but a rattle fashioned of old beer bottle caps. This was something we had not heard before and its prevalence nearly drove us mad, until one evening when eye contact with one such rattler was held a fraction of a second too long. It brought a young friendly man over to our table at the corner 'Bia Hoi'.

The only words he knew were 'hello', which he used once and 'OK? . . . OK!' which he used over and over again during the 45 minutes he spent with us.
" Hello " he said
" Hello " I said. He came over and started kneading my forearm,
" OK? " Normally not one to go for massages on the street from strange men, the beer piped up and I nodded.
" OK! " He beamed and went to work on the shoulders, the arms, the legs, the hands and finally the feet. He then retrieved the satchel strapped to the back of his bicycle and showed me the contents,
" OK? " We had gone from the peddler cries of the 18th century to the medicine of the 14th. Inside were numerous little spherical glass jars I recognized immediately from seeing them in a costume drama on television. The doctor takes the bulb, lights a match inside an as soon as it goes out it is applied to the body. The vacuum that is created holds the jar to the skin and draws out bad humors. I thought that lying down on the sidewalk, shirt off covered with sucking glass balls would leave me in a worse humor. I shook my head as vigorously as the relaxed state of my body would allow.

He returned to the regular massage and after a further 20 minutes of working out the kinks I was sufficiently relaxed to let the cracking commence. The first was the neck. Satisfying but unoriginal as the barber in Hue had provided this service with the shearing. There was the ho-hum fingers cracking and the old hat toe cracking. Then I was instructed to put my linked hands behind my neck and from behind he pulled my elbows towards my chest. The top half of my spine made a sound like dominos falling. It felt good. Real good but it was one of those things when you're not sure if something very bad nearly happened.
" OK? . . . " I gave a nervous laugh and said yes. Were he a dog his tongue would have been lolling out and his tail wagging furiously. I said yes again, as enthusiastically as I could.
" OK! " The crackings became increasingly odd and decreasingly pleasurable. He found a tendon just beneath the knee cap and yanked at it until it gave a sufficient retort,
" OK? . . . "
" erm . . . "
" OK! . . . " He moved on to his piece de resistance, the ear crack. He pulled my shirt up over my ear, gripped the top with his fingers and leaned in close with his own to listen. Still not sure what was about to happen I sat still. With a sharp tug in just the right direction something in the outer structure of my ear gave a satisfying pop. At least it was satisfying to one of us. He grinned, I grimaced,
" OK? . . . "
" Well, no not really. I mean what was the point of that? It kind of hurt and . . . " I trailed of as his face crumpled into the look of a puppy not understanding why it is being scolded.
" Yes! OK!! "
His face lit up again, I paid him his Dollar and he bounced back to his bike and pedaled off down the street shaking his rattle enthusiastically.

~ Nigel



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