Blessed to be a witness

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Tuesday, July 19th

Jing, Jim, Jing

M and one of Saigon's many street kids

We flew into Saigon from Nha Trang, or the 'new' Nha Trang airport, which is a knackered old airfield about 60 km south of the town. Despite the paucity of the airport, the plane again was sturdy and modern, and I'm now pretty impressed with Vietnam Airlines.

The advantage of having one's own transport, over taxis or other means of getting about, was never more stark than this time in Saigon. With few exceptions, the few days we spent there were in two areas: the cheap accommodation zone, or the good food zone. We shuttled back and forth between them and didn't do much else, apart from visiting the 'War Remnants Museum' (which when I last visited was called 'The Museum of American and Chinese Crimes Against Humanity' - renamed to avoid offending the tourists), which is a harrowing display of US atrocities during the Vietnam War, that conveniently misses out Viet Cong atrocities. It is shocking nonetheless.

Last time round I was riding a motorcycle and was able to take in the vast sweep and sprawl of the city. This time I didn't even know where I was in relation to last time, and as has happened pretty much everywhere on this trip, didn't recognise a thing.

It was in Saigon in 1995 that I first had my heart truly broken. Her name was Jing, and she was seven years old.

My then girlfriend, A, and I had put the bikes on the backpacker market, and they were eventually bought by a Scottish and English couple, Hamish and Tracy, who were retracing our steps on the way back to Hanoi. The four of us hit it off immediately, and they agreed to retain the bikes' names Minnie and Molly (we heard from them by postcard later that they'd sold them to further backpackers, who also retained their names. For all I know, maybe Minnie and Molly are still plying the long journey north to south, with the same names).

Hamish, Tracy, A and I were sitting in a café one evening, when one of the ubiquitous street kinds approached us. "Tsoong gaam?" she asked, proffering a small box of Wrigley's Chewing Gum. I can't remember why, but for some reason, we didn't brush her off like she was a fly, as one must so often do to avoid being plagued constantly (I took an hour-long survey on Nha Trang beach and I averaged one hawker approach every two minutes). She asked our names. When it came to me, her face lit up. "Jim!" she grinned, delighted, then pointed to herself. "Jing!" Then back to me: "Jim!" Then to herself again: "Jing!". "Jing, Jim, Jing!"

With the help of the waiting staff we established that Jing was about seven, though she didn't know her exact age, and she could possibly have been up to ten, street kids being sadly undernourished. She had a sweet, but by no means pretty, face, with a little snub nose and a gorgeous smile.

As the days in Saigon passed, she spent more and more time with us, neglecting to sell her Wrigley's 'tsoong gaam' in favour of spending days and evenings sitting at our table, playing around and being bought glasses of Coke. Some nights we had to buy half her stock so she wouldn't get in trouble with her beggarmaster.

These beggarmasters are adults, sometimes well-meaning, sometimes not, who coordinate orphaned or abandoned children (we never discovered Jing's status) into armies of persistent vendors. They provide accommodation and food for their charges, though little or no education, in return for their revenues. A good sales strategy, sending irresistibly cute kiddies out to plague travellers with low-cost goods, at least if the market wasn't so saturated.

For some reason Jing became special to us. It became clear that, despite her hard-bitten life and sales pitch, she, like so many of them, was just a little girl who craved affection. Every evening for a week she would cuddle up with A or Tracy - though tellingly, and worryingly, never me nor Hamish - playing games, singing songs, and she was even impressed with the one very poor magic trick I know (albeit only for a couple of days).

The four of us went on a three-day trip to the Mekong Delta, and on our return, keeping an eye out for Jing but sitting in another café entirely, we heard her delighted shriek of recognition and saw her running into the place, arms thrown wide the better to throw around A's neck, beaming and shouting "Jing, Jim, Jing!". Hamish and Tracy eventually left for Hanoi, but we stayed a couple more days, and Jing only left our side to go back to the house where she lived.

After more than two weeks in Saigon, it was time for us to move on. We explained this the best we could to her, with the help of the waiting staff. "We have to leave. We're flying to Bangkok." Through their translation, Jing asked if she could come with us to the airport. We of course agreed, and the next day, early in the morning, Jing was waiting outside our guesthouse. She sat happily between us on the back seat of the taxi, kicking her little legs, holding A's hand. We arranged a price with the cabbie to bring her back into the city.

When we got out at the airport, she got out with us. We loaded our backbacks, and turned to say goodbye, but Jing held onto A's hand and started walking to the terminal building. We turned her around, but she started to cry and trying to come with us. With increasing concern we began to realise that the translation in the café hadn't been good enough: Jing thought she was coming with us.

We turned her around, and her look of confusion turned to distress as we repeatedly herded her back into the taxi. It was at this point that the taxi driver decided to pull a Vietnamese fast one. "If you want girl go back to Saigon, must pay again." Looking at Jing's face, crumpled and crying in disappointment, I was in no mood to bargain. Our flight was leaving and we didn't have any way to find someone more reliable to take care of her and get her back to the city. I angrily stuffed the notes in the cabbie's hand, and shut the back door, Jing alone and tiny on the back seat. She pointed to herself, then me, then herself again. Jing, Jim, Jing.

The last we saw of her was her face pressed up against the rear windscreen, folornly waving goodbye, as the taxi pulled off down the road. Our hearts broke. If we could have adopted her there and then, we would have, brought her back to the west, and damn the consequences. But the taxi disappeared round the corner, and she was gone from our lives forever.

I frequently wonder what happened to Jing. If the dodgy taxi driver didn't do for her on the way back to the city that day, she'd have no doubt carried on selling her Wrigley's, before perhaps graduating to selling cigarettes or postcards. As our friend Bernie pointed out on this trip, once the street kids reach puberty, they're no longer so cute and are 'retired' from selling. God knows what happens to them then, but I fear that prostitution is not inconceivable.

Jing would be between the ages of seventeen and twenty by now. She would be unrecognisable to us. We have no way to contact her. I worry about her still, but there's nothing I can do.

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