Smile, Camera, Action!!

With apologies to Bogey, of all the motorbikes in all of Ho Chi Minh City (4.1 million and counting), this one had to run in to me.  

It wasn’t the impact. No, it was the speedy exit with my camera that really hurt.  

A Monday morning agency meeting this week meant that I spent Sunday, the Fourth of July – America’s birthday – in Vietnam.  

For 12 hours, as I wandered all over the city previously known as Saigon, I couldn’t help but reflect on my memories of the war as a kid growing up in the States during the 60’s. During the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite one night, I remember asking my Dad what a “casualty” was … I also especially remember my mother’s tears of spontaneous joy as we watched a live television report announcing that a friend’s son was, at that very moment, a newly-freed POW. 

On the other side of the world on Sunday, I came away from this most patriotic of American holidays with one distinct and surprising finding – Ho Chi Minh must be the most friendly city I have ever encountered.  

“Hey California!” came the happy shout all day long – from taxi drivers, market stalls, and yes, people whizzing by on motorbikes. Friendly waves, and big thumbs up … complete strangers with no agenda just saying “Hello” and “Where are you from?” simply to strike up a conversation and to practice their English. 

Not only were people willing to have their picture taken, many took extra time to smile and pose with their kids and Grandma – all balanced on the same two-wheeled scooter.  

With yesterday’s meetings successfully completed and a flight to New Zealand later today, I decided to make use of the down time and hired a hotel car for an early morning photo safari at the Mekong Delta.  

As we were leaving the City with a glorious sunrise to another scorcher of a day, the bright colours of a street market caught my eye and the driver stopped for me to take a quick shot.  

I was outside of the car for all of 15 seconds. Before I had a chance to put the camera strap around my neck, it was snatched from my hand by a guy on the back of the motorbike. I yelled, ran, but my Nikon and a loaded memory card whipped around the corner and out of sight.  

It was 6:10am.  

Bummed? Sick? Feeling stupid? Yep, yep, yep.  

Yet, I also stand by my earlier assertion that this city is world-class friendly. A half dozen people immediately came up, each looking as nearly crestfallen as I, shaking their heads sadly and making comforting conversation. The driver looked particularly stricken – he had suggested we stop.  

We then proceeded to the police station where a barefooted Captain was sound asleep in front of the TV (an American film with subtitles on HBO). A cleaning woman poked him awake, and for the next two hours we revisited the scene of the crime and with the contributions of helpful street vendors, we collaborated on a four-page handwritten report in two languages.  

As we worked away together on the crime report, an older generation of neighbourhood police station groupies asked excitedly to hear the dramatic story again and again, each time wishing me good luck and good fortune at the end. If their kindness also included Vietnamese for “moron,” they did so with smiles and gentleness.  

I know I’ll never see the camera again, nor the 300 images of smiling, happy Vietnamese that I took on the Fourth of July. But I do leave with my mental memory card pleasantly full, intact and newly-updated.