How To Make A Hanoiite Smile
If not for a late plane today I would have left Hanoi believing that most Hanoiites are sourpusses. Instead, I spent two hours in a room full of locals, waiting to board the delayed flight to Saigon. With the exception of one vacant chair, the seats directly across from me were all filled with men – most of them dressed in suits and ties. At my back, a couple of rows away, a TV was tuned to one of those bad martial arts movies, with Vietnamese subtitles running across the bottom. Slowly, I became aware that all of these proper-looking men were watching this ridiculous movie. Some of them were openly and avidly watching it. Others were feigning only a casual interest, but it was obvious that they were hanging on every word. About this time, two tiny little girls from one of the duty free counters sat down together in the remaining empty chair and, holding onto each others’ hands, became transfixed by the program as well.
Only one man – his nose buried in a newspaper – seemed to have no interest. Suddenly I caught this guy surreptitiously sneaking glances over the top of his newspaper. His head didn’t move – just his eyes, as they rolled up and over the newspaper every few seconds, in an attempt to hide his interest in the movie. Little by little, each of the men began to chuckle at the antics in the movie. Soon they were laughing out loud and joshing with each other over the movie. I looked beyond my aisle and saw that, as far as I could see, every face was painted with a broad smile. Even the guy with the newspaper finally relented and openly watched the TV.
So despite the delay, by the time we got on the plane everyone was in a pretty good mood – me included. For a few moments I thought I was going to get lucky and be in a row with no passenger in the middle seat but it was filled at the last minute by a short man in jeans, a knit top, a baseball cap, and simple sandals. From his appearance I guessed he was a laborer or a farmer. The problem was, he absolutely reeked. He wiggled around and got himself situated – opening the air conditioning vent wide. I thought, OK this won’t be so bad, as long as he keeps the air on full force the smell won’t be too bad. Then he took his shoes off. Phewww! Well, I thought, it’s only a two hour flight, I can put up with anything for two hours.
Next, he plunked his arms along the entire length of both armrests and opened a newspaper, spreading it out over the armrests and partially into my lap. Within a few minutes of taking off, he decide to shift his position, sitting spread-eagle so that his knee was poking mine. Little by little he was taking over my space in addition to his own. When he ordered a beer and then leaned against me I decided I just had to do something about this, so I tried to make him understand through sign language that he was encroaching on my personal space. It was a little like when I was a kid, sharing a bed with my younger sister and complaining every night, “Mom, she’s touchin’ me on my side of the bed.” I can’t say for certain if he really didn’t understand what I was trying to get across, but he just looked at the guy on the other side of him and shrugged, rolling his eyes in a manner that suggested I was a crazy lady.
About that time I was struck by the humor of the situation. The next time he elbowed me I couldn’t help but chuckle. Soon it became a game. He’d stick an elbow out and I’d rest back further into my chair and slide my elbow behind his arm. He’d lean further into me and I’d uncross my legs and re-cross them in the other direction, shoving his foot and knee out of my space. It got funnier and funnier until I was laughing so hard under my breath I was choking. All the while, I pretended that the book in my lap was the funniest thing I’d ever read. At the end of the flight, when the seat belt light was turned off, I stood up in the aisle, waiting to disembark. This guy wanted to get his luggage from the overhead bin and motioned for me to move so he could get out into the aisle, but I just played dumb like I didn’t catch his drift and blocked him in until I was able to leave. I think the guy in the window seat enjoyed the show.
I’m back in Saigon for the evening and I leave tomorrow morning for Bali. I am looking forward to some sunshine – Hanoi was cold and rainy the entire time I was there. I’ve posted the final installment of my Vietnam photos on the photo page, so take a look. Bali, here I come.