Saturday, November 27, 2010
The guys in the picture are the security detail for the Hollywood Cafe and Bar just down the block from my apartment. I don't know the exact nature of the Hollywood. Does a neighborhood cafe and bar really need 5 security guys 24/7 to keep things under control? And then there are the two good looking girls (not seen here)in black satin and stilettos greeting the customers. There never seem to be many customers but the big TV screens visible from the street make it seem more like a sports bar than love for sale. I stopped once with a friend for a quick beer at an outside table, and I still don't know exactly what the core business is.
I'm lucky to live just a short walk from the office and that has made me a bit of a local celebrity. As I make my way down the street, holding close to the curb (the sidewalk is reserved for motorbike parking) the locals wave and say hello to the white guy with the shoulder bag. The big guy in the center is the leader of the band and every morning he steps off the curb with a big smile and gives me a meaty "high-five." The other guys smile and nod but Mr. Big is The Man.
Tuesday, November 23, 2010
I'm always startled by the contrasts in Saigon. As we sit drinking our $3.00 lattes at Gloria Jean's we look out on the early morning street life. This woman passes our window every morning on the way to deliver her load. The load is always like the one in the picture - two baskets filled with potatoes, yams, cassava, taro, bananas, avocados, etc. It has to weigh 50 or 60 pounds and she manages it with a serious limp. I don't know where she starts her journey, but she always pauses, puts down her load, and rests as she turns the corner into this little street. This is the Vietnamese Social Security system. There is no free ride or retirement age in Vietnam. You work until you can't work any longer and then your family provides. Families are large and close and very supportive. We have a Vietnamese friend who lives with his wife and 21 children and grandchildren in a 5 room house. Social Security is not perfect, but it is a safety net of sorts. That's what the family is in Vietnam. I don't know which system is better. I think it might be a combination. We warehouse our old and infirm. The Vietnamese work them until there isn't anything left in the tank.
Gloria Jean's Coffee has floor to ceiling windows that are meticulously cleaned every morning by a middle-aged woman with an exquisitely beautiful and friendly face. I can only imagine what she looked like at 20. I'm sorry I don't have a picture of her to include here, because she is part of our day every day. Nevertheless, through these spotlessly clean and clear windows we look out, as we drink our morning lattes, on a narrow street that connects the two main arteries in downtown Saigon - Dong Khoi and Nguyen Hue. It's a fascinating contrast. The little family enterprise in the photo is a thriving street restaurant similar to what existed here 50 or 60 years ago - maybe even in the same location - but not 100 feet away across Dong Khoi Street is the flagship Gucci store just down the street from Louis Vuitton and the Sheraton Hotel.
Every morning this little family sets up shop on the sidewalk. Mama works the stove while Papa, in the baseball cap, serves the customers and washes dishes in two plastic buckets curbside. The daughter does take-out deliveries on her bicycle, riding with a perfectly straight back and the tray held up like a New York waiter as she rides out into Dong Khoi traffic. This is the essence of free enterprise in Vietnam. I'll show you more examples in the next few days.
Sunday, November 21, 2010
When I'm at home in Seattle people are curious about what life is like in Saigon, and I sometimes struggle to describe what the neighborhood, neighborhood life, or neighbors are like. It's definitely different but it has its own "normal." Our normal day starts with a 5:45 taxi ride to the Rex Hotel fitness center and an hour swim or workout, then a quick walk over to Gloria Jean's Coffee on Dong Khoi Street. The coffee culture in Saigon is every bit as pervasive as it is in Seattle. It's robust and omnipresent, and even though Starbucks is thankfully absent, there are chains from the US (Coffee Bean), Australia (Gloria Jean's), Italy (Illy), and local brands like Highlands and Nguyen Trung.
Gloria Jean's happens to be our haunt and we know all the people who start their day there at 7am. There is Mike a venture capitalist and Hong Kong born expat from Dragon Capital, Andrew the vice-provost at RMIT the Australian technical university, Binh who sells beauty products and calls herself Brittany, Nga a single mom who has three kids and whose family business sells everything from flour to used cars. These are the hard core but there is always a sprinking of other regulars and some irregulars as well. Kurt Vonnegut says that everyone has a "karass," a small group of people they end up running into and spending time with. Gloria Jean's is our coffee karass.
I'm particularly taken with Saigon's "coffee art". Check out the swan in the cup above. Every morning the baristas strive to do something different. It might take a little longer to get the coffee but the pleasure is all mine.
More about the neighbors tomorrow.