Eventually, however, I found out that ‘Uc Dai Loi’, the Vietnamese name for ‘Australian’, actually meant something like ‘those from the land of great interest’. The bar girls had learnt over the years of foreign occupation that Australians didn’t have as much money, or spend it as freely, as Americans – which is why the expression ‘Uc Dai Loi di di’ was so often heard. If the Australian had made a reputation for themselves as jungle fighters, they had also made a reputation as ‘cheap Charlies’ (so the girls would say) in the bars. From fifty metres away the acute sixth sense of the bar girls told them who were Australians. ‘Uc Dai Loi number welve,’ called a bar girl in tight skirt and blouse poking out a pink tongue from between horrible lipstick-red lips. Twelve, or ‘welve’, was about as far as any of the bar girls could count in English and was the worse insult they could inflict, since ‘number one’ is the best or greatest in Vietnam, as in China.
I wondered how the bar girls knew I was an Australian because I had been living in Hong Kong, England and Singapore for two and a half years before coming to Vietnam. I had an un-Australian haircut and clothes, and though I had the accent, they never had to wait until I was close enough to speak. Later they told me they could always tell an Australian man because his hair was longer; he almost invariably wore long sleeves rolled up slightly; even young Australians had wrinkles around the sides of their eyes; and they had what the Vietnamese girls regarded as a lazy walk.