“Asian magicians love to work the cards. They love flourish,” Armstrong says as we make our way though the crowd. Flourish is the technical term for special shuffling and card contortion, with a vast subgenre of moves with names like the Charlier Cut, the Biddle Grip and the Anaconda. The room is thick with Vietnamese kids manipulating decks into elaborate shapes like a crew of street kids throwing up gang signs. We walk up to a young man with long hair pulled back into a ponytail and Armstrong asks him to show us his best stuff.
The boy pushes up his sleeves and goes to work, fanning the cards into impossible shapes, raining them down in elaborate waterfalls of laminated cardboard. “Very nice,” says Armstrong.
“I did magic for five years, then I became frustrated because magic requires an audience,” the flourisher tells me. “Art doesn’t. That’s why I switched to fire.”
“What’s the plan, exactly?” It’s 5:30 in the afternoon and I’m sitting on the curb outside the Saigon port with a magician and a crew of wiry Vietnamese taxi drivers.
“I’m not really sure.”
“Well, what did they tell you?”
“That they’d pick us up here and take us into the city.”
“But you do this all the time?”
“All the time. Most ports we hit. Normally we just go to a bar, show each other different card tricks. Super causal. ”
“And you told them I’m coming?”
“I did, but I said you’re a magic journalist.”
“A magic journalist?”
“They won’t share secrets around a lay person. You need to be part of the community. It’ll be fine—just play it cool.”
While I ponder the potential benefits of being a member of the international magic community, a pair of young Vietnamese pulls up on scooters.
“Mr. Jon Armstrong?”
We each hop onto a bike and ride off, helmetless, into the Saigon sunset. After some gentle probing, I realize my driver, a sweet girl with a perfectly round face who tells me to call her Annie, has no idea who we are and even less of an idea of where we are going.
The confusion is compounded moments later when two men on scooters pull up next to us on the road and begin to shake their fists. It seems the local taxi racket doesn’t take kindly to strangers swooping into the port and picking up two potential fares without clearing it with the rest of the concern. So they give chase, following us for the better part of 10 minutes, demanding a $5 kickback and eventually pinning us against the side of the road. A few minutes later, a police officer arrives to mediate, finally deciding that the foreigners don’t owe the scooter toughs a dime.
When we finally enter Saigon, absorbed by the locust chorus of motorbikes and street vendors, the sun has set and the night air smells of fish sauce and exhaust. We pull up to the meeting spot, a coffee and teashop in District 1, where an 8-foot mounted poster announces the evening’s entertainment: “Jon Armstrong from Los Angeles, USA”, along with a dark silhouette of his bespectacled face.
“Looks like I’ll be performing. ”