Nha Trang could have been the Riviera, but for the occasional Vietnamese fruit-seller picking her way between well-oiled Europeans. The glut of sleek bodies laid out like drying kindling had spawned an entirely new industry, plied principally by wrinkled older women with brawny arms and callused fingers. They offered brisk, gritty massages at four dollars an hour, three at a pinch.
I sat one morning and listened to them surveying their torpid clientele from a convenient perch on the crumbling sea wall above the beach. Although they worked alone, they sat together every morning, deciding who should pitch to which potential clients and where to concentrate their energies. This required a consummate eye for the nuances of a cultural tastes and a deft understanding of the delicate underbelly of human nature.
"The Germans," Fe said, "They stink." She wrinkled her nose up into her forehead and shook away the imagined smell. "Even after they come out of the water."
The Israelis, though aspiring to a higher level of personal hygiene, were apparently guilty of an even more heinous evil. They were stingy, and often tried to re-negotiate the agreement after the service had been rendered, a habit the Vietnamese regarded as their own cultural prerogative.
"What about," I asked in my best Euro-Kazak accent, "the Americans?"
To my immense relief, they nodded approvingly. "Number one!" they agreed. "You tell them you're hurt, they always think war. Then they're sorry. The French too." Fe pulled up the back of her blouse to reveal a horrifying peach-sized bulge at the base of her spine. I cringed. She laughed. "My husband," she said, and swung her fist. "Thwack!" She drummed her bare feet against the sea wall. "He died in Cambodia. I was so glad."
An older women examined me with sun-swollen eyes. "Where are you from?"
I considered the various options. Stinky, stingy or stupid. What a choice. "Italy?" I ventured.
They shook their heads in unison. "Not soft enough," one said and drilled a bony finger between my ribs.
I tried repeating what the children had shouted at me all through the Central Highlands, where Westerners hadn't been seen for nearly two decades. Lyn So. Russian.
"Cretins! Insolent knaves! Mangy curs!" They were quite beside themselves, and took it in turns to heap invective upon their unhappy allies until one woman topped them all with a single sentence; They are Russians. Everyone fell back into moody silence.
I explored the issue as gently as one would a throbbing tooth. What was it, exactly, about the insolent, mangy, knaves that they found so unappealing?
To my surprise, they had no ready answer. They muttered vaguely about Russian men bringing their Vietnamese girlfriends to the beach and how they sometimes kissed and fondled them in public, but this was nothing worse than I saw every afternoon on the sand, and far less than a typical evening's entertainment under the secluded beach umbrellas.
The problem, when they eventually got around to it, revolved not around a stolen kiss or two, but the much more serious issue of National Pride. The Russians had replaced the free and easy Americans but had not done their duty in outspending them. Quite to the contrary, they had turned Vietnam into a cheap vacation getaway, arriving in droves to sample the women and bask in the unfamiliarly balmy air and returning home with most of their Rubles intact. An unforgivable sin.
Back to work, they said suddenly and slapped the sand from their calves. The time had not been idle. They had been watching the beach scene and were ready to stake out their turf. They sketched it out as carefully as a Superbowl play. The round and rather blubbery American beneath us was now or never, before the sun roasted his fish-belly white skin to the color and raw meat. The young couple - an English teacher spending a year in Tokyo and his Japanese girlfriend, were in the midst of an ongoing tiff that wouldn't be resolved until mid-afternoon, if the last three days were anything to go by. He might take an hour now, to make her jealous, and she would almost certainly retaliate in kind. That was good.
I pointed out an uneven row of hirsute Spaniards, their fingers spread to blend the tan between their knuckles. A veritable gold mine.
The women were not impressed. "Them! They get their rubbing at night, from the pretty girls." Without another word they picked up their woven mats and tiny bottles of dragon oil and marched off to do battle with rolls of excess flesh and sandy buttocks under the burning southern sky.