On this narrow lane, buildings pressed so close together one might toss a rock from a window on one side through a window on the other side. The vendor stalls made traversing the ground level a challenge, and merchants with storefronts spilled past the limits of their shops.
Crawford spotted Mme. Vưu , a bamboo pole balanced across thin shoulders. Shrouded in black peasant clothes, with the footwear they called Ho Chi Minh sandals on her feet: sections of discarded rubber tires, cut to fit, and fixed with thongs to hold them fast.
On one end of the pole, a basket of bowls, and on the other a steaming clay pot. Wherever Mme. Vưu retreated at night, that pot simmered, waiting for the day. She fed it bits of carrot or onion or bok choi.
Mme. Vưu saw Crawford coming. She settled in the middle of the street, heedless of those around her. Crawford came to crouch beside her as she opened the pot. Saigon had a human scent, a dense aroma compacted by heat and humidity. From the pot spilled another perfume: bò kho prepared in darkness and eaten in the first light.
“Xin chào chi, bà Vưu,” Crawford said. He used the respectful form, though the woman was only eight or nine years older than him. She looked a hundred from work and sun, and she had only eight visible teeth. Crawford had an odd attention for teeth and never realized until he came to Southeast Asia.
“Good morning, Mr. John,” Mme. Vưu said. “Are you hungry today?”
“Very. Two bowls. For me and for Linh.”
Mme. Vưu had small, deft hands, and she fetched two bowls from the basket as if performing a trick. The bò kho poured brown and fragrant and chunked with stewed meat and vegetables. She didn’t offer spoons.
“I want the bowls back,” she said.
Another food-seller might make Crawford eat on the spot, but these mornings were frequent and stretched back to the first year Crawford kept his apartment in Chợ Lớn. He paid her with a few coins, and extra for her forbearance. They exchanged goodbyes, and he was on his way, weaving through the morning shoppers and sellers eager to make the day’s đồng.
“Chào, John. John!”
Crawford stopped short of the entrance to his lobby and searched for the voice. He spotted Dinh Bảo. Bảo still wore the earlier night’s shirt. His hair was a rooster’s comb. He was tall for a Vietnamese, and he stood a head above the others.
“I saw you four hours ago,” Crawford said.
“There wasn’t work four hours ago,” Bảo returned. He looked at the bowls of bò kho. “Do you need both?”
Crawford gave him one. “I’ll eat later.”
Bảo didn’t bother waiting. He put the bowl to his mouth and slurped. A brown trickle marred the corner of his mouth. He wiped it with his hand.
“She makes the best.”
Bảo was fortyish, five or six years younger than Crawford, but he looked much more youthful. He smiled often, as he did this morning. They’d spent the night playing cờ tướng with Bảo’s business friends and drinking rượu đế.
“You ate my breakfast, so what do you want?”
“I came with a gift.”
“For me or you?”
“Not for me. I need a white man. An American.”
“Wait here. Don’t come upstairs. I don’t want Linh to see you.”
“Is she angry because of last night?”
Upstairs, Linh dressed in one of Crawford’s shirts, which ran long over her thighs, but left her legs bare. She sat by the window smoking another Mélia. When he came in, she killed it on a hubcap they used for such things.
“I need to do business,” Crawford said. He gave her the bò kho.
“Bảo?” Linh asked.
“Got to pay rent.”
Crawford left. Downstairs, Bảo had the empty bowl from Mme. Vưu. He pushed it into Crawford’s hands. Crawford returned it.
“I don’t eat it, I don’t take it back.”
“I’ll buy you another one.”
“Tell me what the work is first.”
Bảo nodded. He turned the bowl in his hands. “I heard it from Liên.”
Crawford got the Ruby Queens from his pocket. Short, unfiltered cigarettes in a pink package. Crawford lit one with the Zippo. He exhaled away from Bảo. Bảo didn’t smoke. He never complained, but wore too many thoughts on his face.
“Liên said there’s an American at the Continental. He’s been there three days, trying to hire someone. Liên says the guy is hopeless, but he has money and he’s been spending it putting out the word.”
“Okay. He wants a white man?”
“An American. That’s what he told Liên: get me an American. Where does he expect to find one? There aren’t too many anymore. Liên said maybe a Canadian? The man said no, an American.”
“You said it’s been three days? Why didn’t Liên say right away?”
Bảo shrugged and smiled, and Crawford had the answer before Bảo gave it. “The longer it takes Liên to find someone, the more he gets paid. US dollars.”
“This guy wants someone to do… what?”
“He doesn’t say. Only he wants a white man who knows the capital. He says he’ll pay cash to Liên for finding one.”
Crawford looked up the cross street as a scooter with a noisy two-stroke engine rounded a corner and buzzed toward them. It passed, leaving a sharp tang of exhaust. The temperature was on the rise. May started the rainy season.
“You want me to tell Liên you’re interested?” Bảo asked.
“I’ll be there for lunch. What’s the guy’s name?”
Crawford blew smoke. “Tell Liên I’ll be there at one o’clock.”
Bảo set off toward the street Mme. Vưu always prowled. “Go make me a finder’s fee, Johnny! I got kids to feed.”
Crawford laughed. Bảo had no children.