Nha Trang 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 sat down at the bar.
Beside the bar was a make-shift travel agency with a large sign promoting “The Mama Hahn Green Hat Boat Trip.” I sauntered up to the shirtless Aussie sitting at the desk and told him, “My birthday is in two days. I might want to take this boat trip on that day. Is it any good?”
“For sure, spend your birthday on Mama Hahn’s boat. You’re guaranteed a great time.”
“Who is this Mama Hahn?” I asked. “Is she Vietnamese?”
“For sure,” he replied, “and she’s super-cool. She’ll be smokin’ joints for breakfast.”
The Aussie handed me a flyer – a review of The Mama Hahn Green Hat Boat Trip printed in “The Lonely Planet Travel Guide.” It was a stellar review, so I bought a ticket and figured this birthday would be a party.
That night, while carousing around a blazing fire on the beach in front of the sailing club, a guy came up to me and proclaimed, “You’re the loudest person here.”
“Who are you?” I said 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 Art Now 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 told me. “Come by the sailing club tomorrow afternoon and we’ll talk.”
I did, and I got a gig. It offered a room in Peter’s air conditioned, marble-floored house in a former complex for U.S. Army officers, free meals and a percentage of the bar profits on the nights I perform. I figured with all these hot women hanging around, “What do I have to lose?”
The next day, I moved into Peter’s lavish spread. He said, “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 asked.
“It’s weird,” stated Peter. “That’s how things are in Vietnam.”
At seven in the morning on my birthday, a dusty pick-up truck pulled up to my new headquarters. The pint-sized driver sported a green T-shirt, blue jeans and a funky green army cap. I figured this must be Mama Hahn. She sure was. Her skin was light brown, she had big brown eyes, a flat nose, and the wisps of hair sticking out from her green cap were a scruffy, brittle brown. She gave me the once-over, flashed a devilish little smile and in a drawn-out drawl told me. “So it’s yo’ birthday? Well, Mama Hahn ain’t got no birthday cake, but I try to make it a special day for you.”
Behind the Green Hat
For sure, this woman had a style all her own, and I was digging it. I hopped into the truck. Trim and petite, Mama had the body of a teenager but she was no teenager. She handed me a joint and exhaled “Art, 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.”
“Mama, who taught you English?” I asked, “A black G.I. from Harlem, New York?”
“I dunno, I learned it mostly myself,” she exclaimed and slammed the pedal to the metal.
Mama Hahn was definitely a self-made woman. She told 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 fifty-foot motorboat and her Mama Hahn Green Hat Boat Trips had been going on for ten years. She picked up, on average, twenty-five 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 me totally by surprise. She presented me with a coral bracelet and a heart-shaped ring made from polished shell.
“Mama, that’s so sweet!” I gushed and planted a kiss on her cheek. We boarded the boat and after three quick cups of coffee to kick-start my day, we were cruising through crystal clear waters.
What a bargain. For about eight dollars, the Mama Hahn Green Hat Boat Trip cruised to three beautiful islands. The lunch was huge. There was broiled squid (eyes and head intact), shrimp, the catches of the day, flame-broiled chicken, strange fruits and veggies. Mama gave freely.
The beer was extra – Tiger Beer – 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 extra special agenda for my birthday 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 asked.
“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? A long time! Now, nobody want me. I no look good,” she confided while adjusting the green hat she miraculously managed to keep dry while swimming. “My skin all wrinkley from working in the sun. Everyday, I up at dawn, working all day.” She put her hands in the air and proclaimed, “Now Mama Hahn have old-lady hands.”
“Mama, how old are you?”
“Thirty-eight. How old you, Art?”
“But you look young man,” she exclaimed. “Have young face and body.”
I kissed her on her cheek, she splashed water in my sunburned face and we then splashed one another. 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 couldn’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 told me. As the truck kicked up a gust of dust, I asked, “Where are we going, Mama?”
With a flash of her impish grin, she exclaimed, “Hy, we go Mama Hahn’s house!”
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 T.V. 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 Mama’s daughter, Lee, and the kids from down the alleyway, whose 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.
I headed to the bathroom to shower my birthday suit. Mama’s john consisted of a faucet and a bucket for pouring water over your head. The water leaked into the adjoining room, so a mopping was essential. With all that hard work Mama put in, her toilet was still in the dark ages.
When I returned to the T.V. room the kids were gone. Mama informed me that Lee would be staying at her friend’s house for the night. Then she looked me in the eye and stated. “You know, Art, you’re just the second Western man I ever brought to my home.”
“I don’t believe that,” I confessed.
“For sure, Art. It’s against the law to bring Westerners to your home without permission 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 began to catch on in a big way. I followed Mama upstairs to her bedroom where it was at least one hundred 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.
Hats Off to Mama
By now, you might be wondering if I did 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 gunshy 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.