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All photos by Karin Muller

If you want to know what people in a foreign country think of the different nationalities of travelers, don't ask the politicians or the media. You go to the hands-on workers who get closest to the travelers: the manicurists, the hotel cleaning staff, the waiters. Karin Muller got plenty of insights when she was in Vietnam by listening to the people who give massage. This isn't a formal, scientific study of travelers, country by country -- but it could be.

Conversations on the Beach

By Karin Muller, 8/02/2002

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Nha Trang could have been the Riviera, but for the Vietnamese fruit-seller picking her way between slack and well-oiled Europeans. The glut of overfed 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 listened to them surveying their torpid clientele from a convenient perch on the sea wall.

"The Germans," Fe said, "they stink -- even after they come out of the water."

The Israelis were apparently guilty of an even more heinous social evil. They were stingy, and often tried to re-negotiate after service had been rendered.

"What about the Americans?" I asked in my best Euro-Kazak accent.

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. 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.

"Russian?" I tried.

"Cretins! Mangy curs!" They were quite beside themselves, and took it in turns to heap invective upon their unhappy allies before falling back into a moody silence.

The Russians, they told me, 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 balmy air, returning home with most of their rubles intact -- an unforgivable sin.

"Back to work," they said, and slapped the sand from their lower calves.

The time had not been idle. They had been watching the beach scene and were ready to stake out their turf.

The round and rather blubbery American beneath us was now or never, before the sun roasted his pasty white skin to the color of raw meat. The English teacher and his Japanese girlfriend were in the midst of an ongoing tiff; 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.

My companions 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.

Savvy Resources:

Karin Muller's stories and pictures: http://www.pbs.org/hitchhikingvietnam

Karin's book: "Hitchhiking Vietnam"

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