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Picked up in Paradise

Nha Trang, in southern Vietnam, boasts the cleanest and most beautiful of the municipal beaches in Vietnam. There’s white sand, turquoise waters, coconut palms trees and the city is surrounded by mountains. On a clear day, six islands are visible in the distance. I pulled my rickety red Russian motorbike up to The Nha Trang Sailing Club, put my shoulder length hair into a pony tail and checked out the scene. The open-air bar was dominated mostly by backpacker types and a handful were sucking on bongs. I felt comfortable, took my hair out of the pony tail and took a seat at the bar. Right beside the bar was a make-shift travel agency with a large sign promoting “The Mama Hahn Green Hat Boat Trip.” I saunter up to the shirtless, Aussie guy sitting at the desk and tell him “my birthday is in two days. I might want to take this boat trip on that day. Is it any good?” He tells me “for sure spend your birthday on Mama Hahn’s boat. You’re guaranteed a great time.” “Who is this Mama Hahn?” I ask. “Is she Vietnamese?” “For sure,” he replies “and she’s super-cool. She’ll be smokin’ joints for breakfast.”

The Mama Hahn Green Hat Boat Trip The Aussie hands me a flyer – a review of The Mama Hahn Green Hat Boat Trip printed in “The Lonely Planet Travel Guide.” It’s a stellar review, so I buy a trip and figure this upcoming birthday just might be a party. That night, while carousing around a blazing fire on the beach in front of the sailing club, a guy comes up to me and proclaims “you’re the loudest person here.” “Who are you?” I say in a purposely hushed voice. “I’m Peter. I sold you your ticket for Mama Hahn’s Green Hat Boat Trip. I own The Nha Trang Sailing Club. I could use a guy with your style in my bar. Can you mix drinks?” “No, but I can mix people. I’m Hy Lyfe, from New York City. I sing and play piano. I’ve performed around the world. I just finished a gig in Thailand. Get me a keyboard and you’re guaranteed a super party every night.” “I’m interested,” he tells me. “Come by the sailing club tomorrow afternoon and we’ll talk.” I do, and get a gig. It offers a room in Paul’s air conditioned, marble-floored house in a former complex for US. Army officers, free meals, and a percentage of the bar profits on the nights I perform. I’m figuring with all these hot women hanging around, “what do I have to lose?” The next day, I moved into Peter’s lavish spread. He tells me “you have to be cool here. This house is supposed to be lived in by Vietnamese military personnel only.” “So how come you live here?” I ask. “Its weird,” states Peter. “That’s how things are in Vietnam.” At 7 a.m. sharp, on the morning of my birthday, a dusty pick-up truck pulls up to my new headquarters. The pint-sized driver sports a green t-shirt, blue jeans and a funky green army cap. I’m figuring this must be Mama Hahn and she sure is. Her skin is light brown, she has big brown eyes, a flat nose, and the wisps of hair sticking out from her green cap are a scruffy, brittle brown. She gives me the once-over, flashes a devilish little smile and in a drawn-out drawl tells me “so it’s yo’ fuckin’ birthday. Well, Mama Hahn aint got no birthday cake, but I try to make it a special day for you.” For sure, this woman has a style all her own, and I’m digging it. I hop into the truck. Trim and petite, Mama has the body of teenager but for sure she’s no teenager. She hands me a joint and exhales “Hy, you know Peter, the Australian boy who sold you your ticket?” “Sure Mama, I’m entertaining at his club.” “Peter tell me there’d be a crazy man on my boat today.” Given my history, I assumed he was referring to me and replied “did Peter say good crazy or bad crazy?” “He say good crazy.” I’m figuring whether I was good crazy or bad crazy never came up, but I appreciated Mamma’s positive stance. “Mama, who taught you English?” I ask. “A black GI from Harlem, New York?” “I dunno, I learned it mostly myself, ” she exclaims and slams the pedal to the metal.

Behind the Green Hat Mama Hahn was definitely a self-made woman. She tells me that after the war, she built a restaurant along the waterfront that became so successful, she was forced to sell it to the Communist Party. She claimed this gave her a special privilege: While in the tourist area, the police never bothered her for smoking ganga. Mama owned her own 50 foot motor boat and her Mama Hahn Green Hat Boat Trips were going on for 10 years now. She picked up, on the average, 25 people a day, mostly young backpackers from the world over, plus a smattering of Vietnamese tourists. When we got to the pier to board her boat, Mama took totally by surprise. She presented me with a coral bracelet and a heart-shaped ring made from polished shell. “Happy Birthday!” she exclaims. “Mama, that’s so sweet!” I gush and plant a kiss on her cheek. We board the boat and after three quick cups of coffee to kick-start my day, me, Mama and a motley crew were cruising through crystal clear waters.

A Real Deal Talk about bargain – for just about $8, The Mama Hahn Green Hat Boat Trip has you cruisin’ in Mama’s big old funky boat to three beautiful islands. The lunch is so huge the whole deck is laid-out with sumptuous food. You can savor broiled squid (eyes and head intact), shrimp, the catches of the day, flame-broiled chicken, strange fruits and veggies, what-ever. Mama gives freely. The beer you had to pay extra for. It was a “Tiger Beer,” day for me and somehow Mama kept them thirst-busting cold. To my delight, every now and then Mama passed around supremo ganga. Mama’s associate, Lin, used a Chinese rolling gizmo to perfectly stuff the wicked weed into Vietnam’s “Jet” brand cigarette. She had whole packs of them. Even the music was sublime: When we stopped for our first off-shore swim, Mama had The Doors mystical classic, “The Crystal Ship ” pumping from the ample pleasure boat speakers. I first thought Mama might have an x-tra special agenda for my b-day when she jumped off the boat after me and placed her hands on my shoulders while we dog paddled in the South China Sea. A widow, and mother of a twelve-year-old daughter, perhaps Mama figured this ex-New York record business man might be a suitable catch. Then again, maybe not, because she insisted “I don’t want no man. A man just spells t-r-o-u-b-l-e.” “Mama , what happened to your husband?” I ask. “He die a long time ago.” “I’m sorry. From the war?” “No, from malaria after the war. You know how long it take to die from malaria?” “No idea. How long?” “A long fuckin’ time! Now, nobody want me. I no look good,” she confides while adjusting the green hat she miraculously managed to keep dry while doing the dog. She tells me “my skin all wrinkley from working in the sun. Everyday, I up at dawn, working all day. She puts her hands in the air and proclaims “now Mama Hahn have old-lady hands.” “Mama, how old are you anyway?” “Thirty-eight. How old you, Hy?” “Forty-two” “But you look young man,” she exclaims. “Have young face and body.” I plant a kiss on her cheek, she splashes water in my sunburned face and then we’re both splashing each other. Back on the boat, Mama served a make-shift birthday cake and led the group in a chorus of “Happy Birthday.” Two islands, two Tiger Beers, and I can’t remember how many joints later, we docked back at the Nha Trang pier and Mama’s highly satisfied day-trippers piled into the awaiting vans for the ride back to their abodes. Mama had other plans for me. “You come my truck,” she tells me. As the truck kicks up a gust of dust I ask “we’re we going, Mama?” With a flash of her impish grin she exclaims “Hy, we go Mama Hahn’s house!”

Surprise Party We parked at the edge of town and walked through a winding, narrow alleyway. I peered into the rows of shack-like homes and saw mostly one room affairs with people lounging around one buzzing fan. Mamma’s place was much larger, but still modest by Western standards. Her living room centered around a large-screen TV and a VCR plugged into big Sony speakers. Mama plopped in a videocassette of a Chinese martial arts soap opera set in the age of Chinese emperors, then excused herself to shower. As a warlord disemboweled his enemy, I made some very small talk with Mamma’s daughter Lee and the kids from down the alleyway, who’s parents couldn’t afford such a spiffy home entertainment complex. Lee had long, black silky hair gracing her pale skin. A gold chain and jade Buddha adorned her neck, a gold bracelet jingle-jangled on her wrist. She wore a red, Chinese silk traditional ao dao dress and compared to her neighbors attired in tattered pajamas, Lee had the air of a pampered little princess. When Mama returned, I headed to the bathroom to shower my birthday suit. Mamma’s john consisted of just a faucet and a bucket for pouring water over your head and the water leaked into the adjoining room, so a mopping was essential. Kind of a drag that with all that hard work Mama put in, her toilet was still in the dark ages. When I returned to the TV room the kids were gone. Mama informed me that Lee would be staying at her friend’s house for the night. Then she looks me in the eye and states: “You know Hy, you’re just the second Western man I ever brought to my home.” “I don’t believe that,” I confess. “For sure, Hy. It’s against the law to bring Westerners to your home without permission in advance from the Nha Trang police.” Well who am I to deny that? Like Peter my boss said, “things are weird in Vietnam.” How weird? Next thing I know – I’m tongue-kissing the famed Mama Hahn of The Green Hat Boat Trip. It’s a sensuous, extended play exchange and when we come up for air Mama whispers in my ear: “I want to give you a birthday present you’ll always remember.” I’m beginning to catch on in a big way. I follow Mama upstairs to her bedroom where it was at least 100 degrees and getting hotter by the minute. We tumbled to the mattress on the floor and in a moment of wild, passionate abandon, I made the big-big move: I took the liberty of removing Mama Hahn’s green hat. Hat’s Off to Mama By now, you might be wondering if I deed the dirty deed with the somewhat legendary Mama Hahn. Well forget it. I aint tellin’. Let’s just say Mama Hahn is one of the most special people in the world – and I admire her with or without that green hat. The next evening at The Nha Trang Sailing Club, while I entertained a bevy of pretty wasted backpackers, friendly locals and a handful of hookers, Mama Hahn enlisted recruits for the next Mama Hahn Green Hat Boat Trip. Mama claimed it was too risky having me at her place again without getting permission from the police. Being gun-shy of police in general and police in a Communist police state in specific, I figured just as well. A week later, I hit the road, as there was so much more of Vietnam I was anxious to discover. But to this day, I feel graced for getting an intimate glimpse into the life of the mother of all Vietnamese boat people – the unique and wonderful Mama Hahn. True to her words, she gave me a birthday I’ll remember always.

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