A boat floats down the Saigon River in Vietnam.

Merry Christmas
Mr. Hom

In the mad rush of the
Christmas season, a small
kindness can be the best gift

We came down the Saigon River on a swift boat past thatch huts on stilts at river edge to arrive in Ho Chi Minh City just before Christmas.

It was my first time in South Vietnam; Dr. Gary Edwards had been there before. Our boat slowed to wake speed in the muddy brown river as we eased by rusty ships from Russia and China and tied up alongside a sampan.

"We're here," Gary said, even though the dock was still four boats away. Dr. Fred Pacpaco and I followed Gary, and we threaded our way on and off large and small boats rafted together and reeking of dead fish and diesel fuel to step ashore on the quay.

That's where I met Mr. Hom. Or he met me.

It all happened rather fast. He sat barefoot on a tricycle, one of perhaps 30 Vietnamese men with strong legs who pedal passengers through the sea of traffic in this city of 7 million people who all seem to be riding motorbikes at once.

Each cyclo driver demanded we ride with him. The competition for a fare was fierce. We stood our ground, announcing our destination, attempting to negotiate price, realizing the folly of that while the cyclo-drivers pushed and shoved closer, vying for three fares worth only pocket change to us.

Years before, I took a ride in a rickshaw pulled by a cadaverous-looking man in old Hong Kong and felt uncomfortable, a memory that flashed back as I stood amid Vietnamese men on trikes trying to make a buck.

I don't remember striking a deal with anyone in the jostling crowd. Suddenly my duffel bag flew out of my hand, and I landed semi-reclining on the front end of a tricycle operated by a barefoot man who introduced himself as Mr. Hom. He placed my luggage on my lap, and we were off.

Tricycle driver Mr. Hom served as a guide around Ho Chi Minh City.

LEGS EXTENDED, heels together, toes poised like rifle sights, I arrive in Ho Chi Minh City feet first in a traffic jam on the prow of a pedicab Vietnamese call Xich lo.

"Nice shoes," the barefoot Mr. Hom said over my shoulder.

Pedaling furiously into a poppity-pop sea of Honda bikes that flow like a black-and-chrome wave, Mr. Hom took me, flinching nervously at first, through the most incredible traffic, and deposited me intact but a little breathless in the square between the Caravelle Hotel and the Continental, the setting for Graham Greene's "The Quiet American."

"We made it!" I said as Gary and Fred arrived, laughing. Our exhilaration was like that at the end of a child's first roller coaster ride.

En route, in English, all the while pedaling, Mr. Hom pointed out various sights, impressing me with his urban knowledge and street smarts.

As we wheeled by the shiny bronze statue of Ho Chi Minh, Mr. Hom made his pitch.

"How long you stay here?"

"Ten days."

"I your guide."

We never talked price.

Everyday scenes on the streets of Ho Chi Minh City, where bikes are a common sight, were revealed with the help of a friendly tricycle driver.

THE FRENCH COME for nostalgia. The Russians, because they can't go to Cuba anymore. The Japanese come to buy things; the Chinese, to sell. Americans come looking for old ghosts of the lost war.

I came to write about surgeons of Honolulu's Aloha Medical Mission. They are treating worst cases at Cho Ray Hospital, an open-air, three-story shelter for broken children, victims of unexploded land mines, souvenirs of Uncle Sam.

A freak show of lost and twisted limbs greets doctors on daily rounds, but the grotesque parade begins each morning beyond the revolving glass door of our hotel on Dong Khoi Street, the "street of gold."

Instantly, we rich foreigners (we must be rich because we stay in a hotel) are mobbed by the maimed and miserable. Arms with no hands reach out to us. Blind beggars bang tin cups. Sick mothers thrust limp infants before our eyes.

It is best not to look, a nurse says. Some doctors press money into palms; others press on to the hospital. The same spooky characters are always there, waiting to catch our eye.

So is the barefoot Mr. Hom, on his cyclo, smiling and ready to go, and when I am not busy taking before-and-after shots of surgical patients, we go on little photo expeditions.

These excursions are not for the faint of heart. At any moment you might end up back at Cho Ray Hospital next to a kid in a cast. Against the crush of traffic, the only protection is your nerve. Or, trust in fellow man.

Some mornings, Mr. Hom takes me to Ben Than market, sometimes to the riverfront restaurants for soft-shell crab, or to Cholon, the old Chinese quarter. Some days, I let Mr. Hom follow his nose, and we go down side streets deep into the inner city, exploring pagodas.

He likes my wanderlust and soon seeks likely photo subjects: the tall elegant girls in white silk trousers, the saffron march of Buddhist monks, the wizened old men with wispy white whiskers.

We stop at phó stands and herb shops and a place he knows for roast pigeon en croute and French wine.

Dr. Gary Edwards, left, and Dr. Fred Pacpaco, volunteers with the Aloha Medical Mission, take a break while in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.

I CREATE SMALL, important missions. I need to go to the post office today. Or, I want to photograph statues. I could walk about the city, but Mr. Hom needs work and I enjoy his company. We are a pair, laughing as we go, free-wheeling the streets of old Saigon.

It is time to leave, settle up and say aloha. I hand Mr. Hom an envelope full of bright bills, more than enough to clear my tab. He smiles and asks a small favor.

"Could I have your hat?"

My hat? My old blue baseball cap with a tiny American flag on the back?

"Sure," I say, and put it on his head. He adjusts it at a rakish angle and smiles again.

"What else?"

"Socks," he says. "The monsoon is cold."

A patient waits at the hospital.

I never wear socks in Hawaii -- it is one of many small pleasures of life in the Islands, but before I left for Vietnam, I just happened to pick up one of those three-packs of white athletic socks for $5, thinking they might be useful. After our farewell banquet, I gave the socks to Mr. Hom.

Next morning, we push through the beggars and board the airport bus. I look out and see my old blue baseball cap bobbing up and down in motorbike traffic on Dong Khoi street.

Mr. Hom is smiling as he pedals up to say goodbye. He is pointing at his feet. I lower my window and laugh out loud. Mr. Hom is the only cyclo driver in all of Ho Chi Minh City wearing brand-new white athletic socks -- possibly the best Christmas present I ever gave anyone.

Merry Christmas, Mr. Hom. Merry Christmas.

Rick Carroll is the author of "Madame Pele: True Encounters With Hawaii's Fire Goddess" and "Hawaii's Best Spooky Tales Vols. 1 to 5." Dr. Gary Edwards is a Honolulu eye surgeon. Dr. Fred Pacpaco is a Honolulu anesthesiologist. The three pals are frequent volunteers with Hawaii's Aloha Medical Mission.


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