Saturday, December 18, 2010
Every newcomer to Saigon has a honeymoon experience. The people are positive, hardworking, and friendly. The energy is good. The country is booming. There is an emerging middle class. The food is good. There is no violent crime. The taxis are cheap, and there is no winter. The honeymoon seems to last about six months.
There is no defining event that brings the honeymoon to an end. It could be an encounter with the government bureaucracy or an emerging awareness that people around you seem to know what you're doing before you do. Eventually, you realize the everyone knows your business. That's when someone tells you about "the watchers."
The conventional wisdom is that every street has a watcher - someone who watches the daily comings and goings of all the neighbors. It's so stupid but then again no one says that the government attracts the best and the brightest - maybe the ambitious, the corrupt or the lazy but not the best and the brightest.
The guy with the piercing look and the Tommy Hilfiger T-shirt is an enigma to me. I have passed him every morning and every afternoon for almost a year. He never smiles or says hello, and I get a perverse delight in giving him a big smile and xin chao on my way to and from the office. I get nothing but this stare in return. Everyone else on the street is amused and delighted to play the game, but this dude is not playing. There is nothing covert about his watching. It's hard to believe, but he sits in his plastic chair on the sidewalk from sometime before 8am when I walk by until after 5pm when I walk by going the other way. The Vietnamese prize light skin. Women go to great lengths to cover themselves so that no skin will be exposed to the sun, but this guy is the George Hamilton of Saigon. He sits there in his little plastic chair all day long as the sun passes overhead - watching life go by. He never moves, at least I've never seen him move.
In Vietnam men are the weaker sex. Women do all the hard work - from hauling and mixing concrete to running small enterprises on the sidewalks and keeping their families together. The men sit in their little plastic chairs and drink tea until about 4pm when they switch to beer. During the day they gossip and at night they gamble and get loud. I haven't figured out how the guy in the picture fits in with all this, but maybe he's a retired watcher and doesn't know how to do anything else.
Sunday, December 5, 2010
This couple has one of the many tiny businesses that set up on my street every morning. I'm not even sure what their niche is. It's some specialty breakfast item. There are many like these two - probably half a dozen vendors serving a limited menu in the two and half blocks between my apartment and office. Some have a small heat source; some not. Some serve pho, the Vietnamese noodle soup. Some serve a kind of dry cereal or biscuit. Most have an array of soft drinks or tea. All of them have a cart to transport whatever is needed. Then they sit or squat and wait for their customers. I'm particularly drawn to this couple. There is an unfathomable sweetness to their dispositions. I pass them each morning about 8. I seldom see anyone buying from them, but they are always smiling and always pleased when I say xin chao (good morning). My simple greeting always gets a big return smile and a little chuckle. I know they are curious and amused but we don't have a common language so we share our interest and respect for each other by smiling and saying hello.
The mystery of small enterprises like theirs is how they subsist. Do they have other jobs? Do they have extended family that cares for them? I can't imagine that their little cart provides anything like a living. I was even more mystified when I discovered that they were gone before noon. I always imagined them sitting all day by their food cart until the day I walked home for lunch and noticed that they had packed up and departed. The same was true of most of the other mobile enterprises. Where do they go? What do they do for the remaining hours of the day? The Vietnamese are incredibly industrious, so I feel certain that when they pack up and leave it is for another spot and another Mom and Pop effort - maybe a better spot for lunch traffic or another job.