Saigon Snapshot, Vietnam
12 October 2009 | Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
Amongst the gnarled roots of a scarred almond tree, thrusting through a crack in the broken pavement around its base, a red flower stood beaming despite the heat.
The flower's struggle to prevail was done. The tree's youth had had its run.
Nearby, a scrawny, to-be man, eighteen perhaps, in baggy New York rappers' costume, parked a cheap Chinese scooter against a rickety table, then bowed. An ageing tourist sat there, unshaven, eating.
The old man's gaze rose, face glazed, jaw set, looked at the youth then at the flower as it caught his eyes.
He shook his head and quietly mumbled to himself.
Inside the open fronted restaurant, a small woman in her late sixties, of similar age to the gray observer, paced past him, a smiling baby on her hip, her gait proud, faint scowl barely showing on her face.
His eyes followed her. The lines and ravages of a rice farmer's wife were contrast to the baby's new skin.
The grandmother reached the damaged tree then turned and returned. As she approached his table, her face relaxed. A broad smile of broken teeth said, "Hellow".
Her voice was gentle, with the lilting sound that Vietnamese have absorbed since the French seeded their language.
"Hi", was the barely audible reply, as knot blocked his throat. He forced a smile through his shining sweat.
"You American?" she asked hip leaning on his table.
"Yes". He replied quietly. The foreigner seemed embarrassed.
"Welcome" she nodded, and having said that walked off with the boy, humming to him gently.
In the leafy boulevard, beyond the new flower, the old tree and the scooter, a sea of humanity, on bicycles, cars, buses, trucks and three million scooters wove itself on Ho Chi Minh City's Lo Lai Street. Everywhere the visitor looked, amongst and beyond the traffic, hoardings buskered foreign wares, cranes waited in the sky and hope shone on the faces of passersby. What his mind saw was hard to read.
The old man rose, paid the bill and left the restaurant. Puzzlement and uncertainty grew on his face as he walked. Furrows appeared on his forehead.
He carried himself and looked like former soldiers who return to Vietnam each year- paunchy, baggy shorts, slightly stooped, Hawaiian shirt to hide the gut with nerdy sandals replacing combat boots.
He did not want to show his feelings. This was the land where once he'd exercised the power of life and death. The smiles he'd forced upon his face were similar to those he'd seen when his gun was a badge.
A woman in a brightly patterned blue pajama common in the paddies, squatted on the sidewalk, conical hat shading her from the heat, worldly possessions around her.
He leant against a half demolished wall and watched. Amongst his sweat, his tears were camouflaged.
The pavements where he'd had his run, was where the flowers stood.