Saying goodbye to “Ten Dollars”

I would like to tell you a story about Ten Dollars. Ten Dollars is not a thing or a quantity. Ten Dollars is a person. A street vendor who I have known for several years. He worked in Pham Ngu Lao, the tourist district of Saigon in the early afternoon through to evening. Not as long as most of the people in that area, but he worked in such a way as to be very noticeable.

He had an odd angle on selling goods to foreigners. Firstly, he had no range. He carried only one product at a time. He would either have a single pair of sunglasses or a watch. He did not, as other vendors do, try and ask how you are, or where you come from and he would never say “Please help me. Buy something”. He would just walk up, stick a watch or a pair of sunglasses into your line of vision and yell with a huge smile and in the most croaky, 3-packs-a-day voice, “Ten Dorrar !”

He has been doing this for years. He would carry a pair of imitation Ray Bans or an imitation Rolex and just ask people for “Ten Dorrar !” for it. Depending on what he had, he will likely drop it down to “Fai Dorarr !” and you can get something pretty cheap. His stuff was unusual in that you wonder where the source is. Some have suggested that they are stolen and others that they are rejects. Frankly I think the products never really mattered.

When some vendors are low on stock you tend to think “Ahh, they had to pay lots of bills or debts (or buy drugs) this week”, but for Ten Dollars, it’s not like that. He didn’t walk around as quickly as others. He wasn’t on the streets for that many hours. He was just out for a laugh. Because he didn’t seem to mind terribly if bought off him or not.

If you were new, he would make a few attempts to coerce you, but he seemed to make up his mind if you are worth his time in a few seconds or less. If you were not interested he would wave his hand dismissively and say “Bah !”, but if you look at what he has or make eye contact he will smile and say “Hey, my friend. Ten Dorrar !” and then the hilarious conversation would ensue.

I have bought many sunglasses and watches off him over the years, partly because he carried the best item he could, but mostly because he was just plain funny. There may have been games with him but it never involved pretending to be hurt or foisting guilt on you. Instead he would grin broadly and pat you on the back and show you what he has so proudly as if it was a half tonne blue fin tuna he’d just caught.

He just wanted to entertain. So many people have said “Oh my god he’s a character”, “He is a local icon”, or “What a loveable nutcase” that I can’t count. One of my foreign friends here who is normally socially awkward and really doesn’t give a cent to anyone said “This guy, I never want what he has, but I think it’s ok to give him a dollar for no reason because he is so bloody amusing. If you buy something you are not paying for what you buy. You are paying for his entertainment”.

He’s one of those guys who would yell out at you from behind, saying “Hey, my friend !” in his croaky voice before opening his eyes wide and puckering his lips and displaying his wares like they were a rarely uncovered diamond. But he would never harass you. What he did was a tiny bit of street theatre. He was a parody of Vietnamese life. He would see you and grin and do his act, knowing full well you have no real interest in what he has, but because you might buy it anyway just because he is brightening up people’s lives.

I have no doubt that he had another job of some form, although I don’t know what. I wouldn’t even be surprised to learn that he was actually quite wealthy and that this was just his way of joking around and chilling out. His demeanour certainly had that sort of tongue-in-cheek “I’m just doing it for the LULZ” attitude.

I know an Irish English teacher who told me that he had known Ten Dollars from at least 8 years earlier in another district of the city. He told me that Ten Dollars worked on a construction site, but that he was booze hound and needed extra money for rice wine, so he would go and sell stuff in the street, because just selling one item was enough to keep him in cheap wine for at least a day or two. He told me that that’s the reason Ten Dollars only carries one item, because he can’t be trusted with a whole range of products or else he will sell them off as cheaply as possible and drink up the proceeds, so the people he sources his products off only give him one item at a time to sell. He also told me how he was responsible for teaching him the phrase “Stick it up your arse”, which is something he apparently muttered under his breath as he walked away if someone had been rude to him.

I have another very well spoken friend from England who loved having loud exchanges with him where the guy would thrust a watch in his face, knowing there was zero chance of him buying it and this big burly British guy with a usual aristocratic accent would yell “Stick it up your ass !” and Ten Dollars would repeat it back to him and they would continue yelling at each other “No YOU stick it up your arse” until they both break into laughter. I’m not even sure he understood what it meant, but it sure gave us all a laugh.

And laughter was what he produced. When he has been absent, I have said to people “I haven’t seen Ten Dollars in a while, have you ?” and recently another foreign friend commented “I think, that guy can never die, because if he wasn’t here, this place would never be the same again”. And it’s true. He was an icon of Pham Ngu Lao. One of the crazy folk who just mingles in with the daily life of the street and makes it so rich and beautiful. A diamond in the rough and a king among men.

Well, after none of us had seen Ten Dollars in some time, we started to wonder again. Maybe he was in prison. Maybe he moved to the countryside. Or maybe something else happened. We knew he had all but lost his voice to the point where he could barely whisper his famous catchphrase, so it was no stretch of the imagination to assume that he was suffering from throat cancer.

Knowing the street people well, I put the word out to one of my most trusted vendor girls to find out what happened to him. The truth made us all weep. Ten Dollars was in hospital for treatment for his throat cancer and sadly, he passed away on the operating table. Never again will any of us get a friendly slap on the back and a fake Rolex thrust in our face with “Ten Dollars !” whispered hoarsely in our ear just to give us a chance to jest with him.

People say that the street vendors are a pain in the ass. Annoying and persistent and rude. But not this guy. The day I brought the sad news to my friends, we all met up on the street at our usual spot for a beer and we raised our glasses and said “To our dearly departed friend, Ten Dollars. Mot Hai Ba Yo !”

I don’t know precisely how many family members he left behind or how many turned up to his funeral, but for the locals on Bui Vien, we’ll remember Ten Dollars for a long time to come and even after his death I still hear people talking about him like he’s still around.

I was wearing no watch for the last six months because I wouldn’t buy one from anyone except Ten Dollars, even if I knew it might only last a week, and at times it wouldn’t even be ticking when he handed it to me, because it was worth it just to keep the guy around. After he died, I resigned myself to the fact that I would never get another pair of sunglasses or a watch from this lovable character again and I finally went to shop and bought a new watch.

Here’s the last “Rolex” that I bought off him about a year ago for about $6, in a couple of photos that my friend took of us during a late breakfast at a sidewalk Mexican restaurant in Bui Vien, the place full of fascinating characters where anything can happen, and frequently does. So if this is your first time hearing this news, then I invite you all to raise your glass tonight to the memory of one of Bui Vien’s greatest characters, the man who made us all laugh and who we only ever knew as “Ten Dollars”. You will be missed, my friend.

  • Leif Carlsen

    Nice piece on a much loved and now missed character of Pham Ngu Lao.