You don’t like my cap? I say ‘khong sao’
The author wearing his brown hat adorned with a five-pointed red star at Ho Chi Minh City’s Tan Son Nhat International Airport. Photo: Josh Tribe
All the world’s a stage,” wrote Shakespeare somewhere. Quite right, Billy, quite right. And in this drama casually referred to as life, we all get to choose our own costumes.
I don’t know if it quite qualifies me as “an old-school man of the world,” but like a dude from a bygone epoch, my costume nearly always includes a hat. Rarely do I leave the house without one. Maybe it’s the Jewish blood inside my cranium craving some kinda yarmulke. And well, for whatever it’s worth, for a long spell now, the cap atop my unruly curls comes from Ho Chi Minh City.
Above all, these hats I pick up at bric-a-brac shops in the backpacker area are comfortable. Simple, cotton, wide-brimmed like a baseball cap, but flat on top instead of pointy; adorned with a five-pointed red star. As I’d never be caught dead wearing camouflage, I opt for the earth tones: mud brown, rustic khaki, or black. A sharp cap, what!
“Communistic” is about the last word I’d ever come up with to describe them, although technically, it’s not for no reason why others sometimes do. This pleases or amuses some, acutely irritates none too few, while lord only knows how many silent reproaches I receive while wandering the streets of Saigon, San Francisco, Bangalore, etc.
I certainly don’t consider my choice of headwear to be militant, much less militaristic. Needless to say, a brown hat with a red star doesn’t remind me of Karl Marx.
As for this cement broiling pan of a city, I don’t know how or why everyone doesn’t wear some kinda hat at all times. Either the sun’s blazing down through the depleted ozone like Armageddon, or it’s pouring rain with a fervor that’s commensurately Biblical. The best option really, is the classic conical numbers still worn by this country’s matriarch pajama saints, Buddha bless ‘em.
Back to the communistic caps I bargain for on Bui Vien via an obscure principle known as “supply and demand.” There’s absolutely no socialism whatsoever involved in the purchasing process, so far as I can discern. I’ve been known to pay as much as four dollars for one, though more often I’ve only had to shell out half that.
Four years ago, I had the habit of wearing a nearly identical cap featuring an actual Vietnamese flag, and had no qualms about returning to my native United States in such a costume. The Stars and Stripes is such a staple within the fashion industry worldwide,
I couldn’t imagine why wearing another country’s flag would ruffle any feathers—especially considering that had I thought twice about it, I would have assumed, and accurately so, that 99 percent of my compatriots, while perhaps realizing it was some kind of flag they were looking at on my hat, would have no clue in the world which country it represented.
My friends, knowing where I’d been, said things like: “Cool hat, that comes from Vietnam?” Some of them wondered aloud if any ornery Vietnam vets might have a bone to pick with me over it.
For two years, I wore it on every relatively warm day while residing in Portland, Oregon. When I broke out my beige cap with the Vietnamese State icon on it one fine anomalously rain-free day in May, having joyfully retired my beanie for the summer, I noticed that Sunny, the woman who owned and operated my favorite Thai food cart, started treating me rather coldly, which was completely uncharacteristic. And the previously hearty portions of pad kee mao I bought from her all the damn time, became increasingly paltry.
It was Danny, my Korean American coworker and friend, who pieced it all together. “Maybe it’s because of your hat, Bro. I think it bothers the Korean ladies too.” I thought he was nuts and simply lacked faith in the essential decency of Asian American culture. Without hesitation, I launched an informal investigation.
Sure enough, the (South) Korean barbeque ladies had wondered if I wasn’t promoting the regime in Pyongyang. They were greatly relieved to learn the truth, and happy to learn what the Vietnamese flag looks like.
Sunny, it turned out, knew damn well I was wearing a Vietnamese flag on my head and was holding some untraceable grudge. Worse yet, she could not be sweet talked into a more sensible outlook. I had to find a new Thai food cart, as even when Danny ordered for me, Sunny was too sharp not to realize it’d be me who’d be eating the spicy tofu.
When I returned to Vietnam, simply because I preferred how they looked, I switched from the flag hat to the less conspicuous star hats. For purely aesthetic reasons, I chose those without the word “Vietnam” on them. This aspect of my getup seemed to entertain my Vietnamese coworkers, who, never having ventured into the tourist traps of Pham Ngu Lao, wondered where in the world I’d found such headwear.
It wasn’t until recent sojourns to Thailand and India that I realized the odd power held by the five-pointed star sewn from crimson thread (undoubtedly in some terribly non-socialist sweatshop).
On the streets of Bangkok, a pair of traveling buddies, one from Argentina, the other Italy, shouted, “Great hat! Che Guevara!” They invited me for a curbside beer or nine. Robert, a Greek madman who specialized in talking pretty women into posing nude for him in Koh Phangan, dug the hat the most, making it all too clear there was literally nothing he wouldn’t do to own one.
Then the other day in Goa, an older British bloke—a dead ringer for James Carville—who was completely antagonistic toward Vietnam, snidely remarked, as I went on the defense, that he’d noticed my hat earlier (I’d removed it for dinner), inferring he’d sized up my political sympathies based on what I still consider an innocuous red star. He wasn’t too bad a guy, this British Carville, but he refused to accept that I’d spent three years of my life in Vietnam—a crude communist outpost in his eyes—with nothing but positive experiences to report.
Yes, the nationalist-communist guerilla warriors of the 20th century did employ the five-pointed red star to represent their revolutionary ideologies. But the sort of stateless system of statehood outlined by Marx in The Communist Manifesto has simply never come to pass... anywhere.
So, if I cross your path with a five-pointed my red star on my head, let it connote a meaningless ism if you please, but know that it’d make far more sense to associate it with alternate, dare I say more successful appropriations... Such as the US mega-department store chain Macy’s. Their symbol is the very same red star. An identical red star is also present on the state flag of California. San Pellegrino uses the same red star to sell its fancy-pants bubbly water.
Finally, Tuesday morning, while trying to wrap up this strange piece of writing, I asked the Goan guys at the joint where I eat breakfast what they thought when they saw my hat. Kuldeep, a 19-year-old prince of a fella, said: “I see brown, with red star.” The owner of the bungalow resort and restaurant, Godwin, an experienced and learned man, said: “One dollar.”
Yass, the five-pointed red star of Chairman Mao and Che Guevara has been reduced, like everything else on earth, to a symbolic soldier in the Army of the Almighty Dollar.
It was Mats, a slightly high strung Swedish yogi, who gave the most insightful answer to my query. After giving it a long hard ten seconds of thought: “Something revolutionary and also Rasta—a lot of my Rasta friends wear caps like this—so I think it’s kind of a Rasta Revolution cap.”
Thank you, Mats. And to everyone still hung up on the word communism, I say, “Good luck, I hope you make it.”
By Josh Tribe
The writer is an American expat who lives and works in Ho Chi Minh City. The opinions expressed are his own.