He greets me from afar, big outstretched palms like an old mate at a reunion. What good fortune to see each other again! Only problem is, I've never met this beaming cyclo driver before.
"One hour 200,000 dong!" he exclaims.
Oh dear, I can't help sticking out like a fat tourist on the streets of Saigon.
Usually, I brush off the hawkers by turning quickly away, but this guy had charm.
I said no thanks, I wanted to walk. He insisted the price was fair and that I'd see all the sights.
The cyclo is a reverse rickshaw of sorts, the pedaler seated behind a bucket seat where the passenger sits. Granted, 10 bucks for an hour was very reasonable, and probably negotiable, but did I want to be the front bumper in this frenetic chaos of traffic of Saigon? Not sure.
"Everyday I polish this," he said, pointing to the shiny chrome fender. He's been a cyclo driver for 27 years, to feed his 7 children, he says. I asked his age, guessing fiftyish. He looked haggard but strong and wiry. He said 63, rather proudly. We chatted at a street corner, without fuss or insistence. His name was Tran, mister Tran. He had an easy smile and unforced an laugh that I soon discovered was typical of the Vietnamese. They come unadorned and unrestrained.
He used to be in the South Vietnamese army, like many among the motorbike taxi drivers and other street workers who were stigmatized, if not brutalized, after the fall of Saigon in 1976. That's barely 38 years ago. I graduated high school that year. Montreal hosted the summer Olympics that year. I have a motorcycle that old.
Vietnam, and Saigon in particular, may be pulsating in growth and shedding its past, but in the aging people like mister Tran, the scars of war live forever. (Jan 6)