Hanoi, Vietnam: Milking it

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Hanoi, Vietnam: Milking it

Marcel was so French you could spot it across the cafe. The shrug of the shoulders, the downturn of the mouth and sulking bottom lip, the sleepy eyes and cigarette permanently attached.

He was a beret short of a stereotype.

It was Hanoi on a hot afternoon when we met, both of us escaping from the sticky humidity. I had been around the city for a few days and he had just arrived back from Paris. We shared beers and he told his sad but enlightening story.

Marcel was in his late 50s, had lived most of his recent life in various parts of Asia, and seemed to have been schooled in the art of the deal. Whatever that deal might be.

What had brought him back to Hanoi was milk, or more correctly the lack of it.

He had been in the city off and on for almost two years trying to tie the government and some local business people up to a deal involving importing milk powder and products from France.

About six months ago I finally got them to sign the contract and we all went out to celebrate. "That was the last good thing about the deal, the dinner that night which I paid for."

Marcel had then headed back to France to get things in train for a trade which was going to be worth millions. As the agent he would be riding high on a substantial commission.

A fortnight ago he had come back to Hanoi to talk through the fine details.

"Of course this being Vietnam half of the people I dealt with before were now nowhere to be found, and the other half were government people who never want to say a word. It was a very strange meeting and I had to go over all the details again. They told me they'd go away and think about it.

"I was stunned. I had thought it was all confirmed. But this is Vietnam."

He sank lower over his beer-hoi as he told about his next meeting.

"They were very polite but said they now had signed a new contract with someone else. I said, 'But I have a contract, it is signed'. They just said, 'No, that was the first contract, now we have this new one. This is the contract now.'

"I didn't know what to say. You cannot be angry because then you would lose everything, not that there was anything left to lose, but I had to be quiet and reasonable in the hope of salvaging something from it.

"But that was how they thought about contracts. The first one was out of date, now they had a new one. I just have to live with that."

What next for Marcel then?

He offered a Gallic shrug. He would just have to start again. He had a visa for three months and so would start his round of negotiations again in the hope of coming up with "the new contract". His people back in France were understanding, so he would just have to sit it out. Try again.

That night I took Marcel to an excellent French restaurant near the lake and got him drunk. It seemed the least I could do.

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