Look Ma, No Lines

The prospect of casting was harmless enough. A lark, really. Something we’d all look back on and have a laugh about, but nothing we’d ready for the night before — if we even showed up.

And then we showed up.

With some holding folded copies of the call for “foreign actors for a Vietnam War movie,” a dozen of us arrived in the early afternoon at a bar where we’d normally be found at night. A casting agent arrived an hour or so later (long enough for us to have a couple beers and speculate that the whole thing was an elaborate hoax to get us to spend money at said bar). Then we followed the agent in her taxi to the faraway studio: a trail of motley foreigners all mounted on motorbike, doing our best to pursue the taxi, revving engines and running red lights, drawing dumbfounded stares from locals along the street.

At the studio, some of us were immediately pegged for extras (or wanted nothing to do with actual acting), while others were given scripts and told to prepare. I tried out for Father Bill, the sensitive-but-hardened Army chaplain, but my dreams of stardom were usurped by another hopeful. Yes, my chance at 15 minutes of fame would later turn into 13 hours of quiet obscurity, passed in the background, carrying random items from one edge of the frame to another or pretending to hold a meaningful conversation with another of my line-less cohorts.

It was at some point during casting that someone figured out that the “movie” was actually a low-budget, made-for-TV affair that would eventually be dubbed into Italian — a compensatory revelation for those relegated to the status of extra, but a downer for the aspiring actors among us.

A few weeks later we found ourselves in downtown Saigon, eating pho and drinking coffee in the early hours of a Tuesday morning in the courtyard of a university once occupied by the U.S. Army, waiting for that day’s shoot to begin. Several scenes and countless takes later, long after the sun had gone down, we walked away exhausted: $100 richer, a little more famous than we’d begun the day and wondering if we’d ever see ourselves on screen.

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View With a Room

From the fifth-floor roof of my apartment building one can see in every direction, though downtown Saigon is not quite visible through the distance and the haze of pollution. After the sun goes down, the neighborhood becomes lively for a few hours — chatter from the street, shouting from the soccer match down the block, motorbikes coming in from the day and going out for the night, planes landing and taking off at the nearby airport, the erratic crackle of the neighbor’s bug zapper — and then it goes quiet. The tranquility that drifts up to the roof after 10 p.m. is both soothing and dissonant — dissonant that somewhere in this cacophonous city of millions one can still find some peace and quiet.

5 QUESTIONS THIS POST MAY POSE

Where do you live?

I live in Go Vap, a suburb of Saigon, north of the city proper and about 10 minutes from the airport. Across the alley from my building is a restaurant that serves better-than-average pho for about $1. Along said alley there are sundry shops, laundry services, hair salons, cafes, and motorbike repair shops. On the main road, just a quick jaunt down the alley, there are grocery stores; more cafes; great restaurants; banks; banh mi and bun bo carts; fruit stalls; cell phone, stereo, and laptop shops; fashion boutiques; and plenty of local flavor. A public swimming pool is visible from the roof just a few blocks away, but due to the maze-like nature of the surrounding alleys and sub-alleys, no one in the house knows how to get there.

Who do you live with?

I live with 16 other expats, plus the owner of the house and his Vietnamese wife. The nationalities of the expats include Irish, English, Belgians, French, Americans, Australians and Canadians — and everyone is an English teacher. The house is called the Saigon Workers Resort and it acts as a staging base for foreigners trying to make a go at living in Vietnam.

What’s the weather like?

Slightly muggy, a bit breezy, 75 to 90 degrees (F) during the day, cool at night. The sky is clear some days, but for the most part there is a constant overcast of smog. There has been only the occasional rain storm so far, but the wet season will be gearing up in a couple of months, at which point I’m told the whole city simply resigns to being in a constant state of damp-to-drenched.

What’s it like teaching English?

Not like what I expected. I work for an agency that contracts me out to private schools around the city. Right now I teach at a primary school, working with first through fourth graders, and I will soon be picking up two high school classes. My schedule is set, but it’s not 9-to-5, and I work about 17 hours a week (most teachers don’t push more than 25 hours a week). The commutes can be challenging, depending on the time of day, but being stuck in traffic provides more than enough eye candy to break up the monotony of being stuck in traffic. I am probably grossly overpaid considering my qualifications, but Saigon is desperate for English teachers and because I’m a native speaker a premium is paid merely for my classroom presence (more on teaching later).

What’s your favorite day-off activity?

Getting lost. There is nothing more exciting than jumping on my motorbike, picking a direction, and heading out into the streets of Saigon to discover new neighborhoods and the ever-elusive better cup of cafe sua da. Of course, without a smartphone equipped with GPS and Google Maps, this undertaking would be madness, so perhaps the phrase “getting lost” is a bit of an exaggeration.

View From the River Ferry

All day, every day, thousands of cars, motorbikes, and pedestrians cross the Nha Be River on ferries. I crossed with a motorbike on my way to Vung Tau, a coastal resort town south of Saigon. In an idling pack of motorbikes at the terminal waiting for the next ferry to unload, riders have plenty of refreshments to choose from: pineapples, banh mi, fresh-pressed sugar cane juice — just don’t get stuck mid-transaction when the light turns green, the gates open, and the idling pack pushes forward: there’s no sympathy for the famished.

Saigon Nights

Saigon is an insane, fascinating, dirty, beautiful, noisy, intimidating, non-stop, anything-can-happen kind of city. It’s more than a sprawl of urban bustle: it’s a frame of mind, a point of reference, a lens through which to view Vietnam.

After our return from Con Dao, Arron and I had less than two days to explore the city before he left back for the States. We holed up in a better-than-decent hotel in District 1, hit up a spa for amazing massages, ate a few solid meals, made a couple friends, learned how to cross the street (tip: don’t stop), and regularly looked around in awe at this one-of-a-kind, intoxicating metropolis.

Day Tripping

After renting a couple motorbikes we headed out on an impromptu tour of the Phan Rang-Thap Cham greater metropolitan area. We puttered through a couple of small coastal fishing villages, then wound through the highlands of Nui Chua National Park before cresting a hill and finding ourselves looking down on the whitecap-speckled blue of Cam Ranh Bay, discovering along the way that motorbikes are one of the best ways to travel in Vietnam.