Even more than eating for fun, the main pleasure of Vietnam is mingling, but that’s only if you enjoy being around people, which Vietnamese obviously do, and here, community life is most intense and intimate in alleys.
The French gave Hanoi and Saigon a facelift, so there are straight streets, grand boulevards and many traffic circles, but if you enter an alley, you can be sucked into a labyrinthine network that’s entirely Vietnamese, and once in, there is a risk of humiliation with each turn, for if it’s a dead end, one must retrace one’s steps past all the locals. Escaping one dead end, one may enter a worse one. Thinking they might never get out, most foreigners never take the first step.
On my morning walk today, I passed the egg noodle man, who’s been in business for over three decades. Though overcharging a bit, his food is decent enough to fill his three tables, set up each dawn at the head of my alley.
Turning right, I saw the shoe repair guy, sitting on an old camp bed in the shade, fixing a sneaker. Across the alley were his used shoes for sale, arrayed on a nylon sheet on the ground.
Within sight was the itinerant fish monger. Perched on a tiny plastic stool, she snipped one fish head after another.
Up and down that alley, men relaxed at tiny cafes, under anchored umbrellas. Some read newspapers. A pair played elephant chess. Here and there, an old man sunned himself in front of his house. Food carts sold noodles, wontons or sticky rice. A man pushed a three-wheeled pedal wagon, laden with vegetables. Under a conical hat, a woman slowly drove her motorbike around, with a speaker that repeated, “Hot bread here! Crusty, thick-bodied bread here!”
Even in alleys, there are many factories, so within a five-minute walk from me, you’ll find manufacturers of machine parts, jewelry, carton boxes and plastic bags, as well as a water bottler and an overnight car garage. Blending into daily life, all their doors are wide open. One factory has five chickens that spend their day pecking around its alley.
At a small, half-dead banyan tree, still believed by some to be holy, there is an array of Taoist icons, plus two faded and dusty tiger figurines. Once all over Vietnam, this fearful, sacred creature was dubbed “Mr. Tiger,” but between sport hunting, as introduced by the French, then Napalm, illegal logging, poaching and explosive human population growth, there aren’t even five tigers left in the entire country.
Pulling up to a tube pasta restaurant’s window, a motorcyclist shouted, “Beef here!” Then he handed the waitress a small sack of red, bleeding flesh. Much more meat was in a green basket between his legs.
Beneath an idle fan, a thin, shirtless tailor was concave over his antiquated Singer.
Alarmingly, there’s this on a greengrocer’s wall, “A THOUSAND DISEASES CAN ENTER THE BODY THROUGH THE MOUTH.”
An entire semi-covered market can be hidden inside alleys, with butchers, fish mongers and vegetable vendors all jammed together, so that each merchant is within earshot of half a dozen others, facilitating much jovial bantering. “If that whore isn’t ridiculous, then who is?” “Such a fart-sniffing face, yet so arrogant!”
A coffee seller yelled to a fruit dealer across an alley, “Where you going, missus?”
“To collect some money!”
“You’re going to get drunk! Admit it!” Both women laughed.
Of course, people need to joke and jive to lighten their workload and shorten their day, but they can’t do it if their work space and pace are strictly regimented, with a supervisor constantly hovering over them. At a crowded soup joint on a large street, I saw employees assigned to work stations, just like in an American restaurant, so the assembly line has penetrated the Vietnamese kitchen.
At a curbside cafe, a middle-aged man opined, “This month is for drunken carousing. Next month is for gambling. When cash is short, you gamble.” Overheard bullshit should also be a part of any healthy diet.
In each alley, you’ll find many laundry racks, with good clothes, an impossibility two decades ago, for just about everything would have been snatched. In 1995, a shoeshine boy sprinted out of a Saigon restaurant with my leather pair, then in 1998, my glasses disappeared in Nha Trang. With mirth, a lady told me about having one shoe stolen as she relaxed by the Saigon River in 1980, with the thief returning minutes later to demand a ransom.
Though Vietnam is still poor, its steadily improving living standards give people hope, and since many are their own boss, they feel more in charge of their destiny. Its -0.3 migrants per 1,000 people is the same as Malaysia, worse than Thailand (0), but better than Morocco (-3.2), Mexico (-1.8), Bangladesh (-3.1) or even China (-0.4). A successful society is one that can retain its poorest, as well as its brightest. With American student loans becoming unpayable for millions, many are already fleeing the country.
In my alley, there was a driver who emigrated to the US with his wife and two boys in 1999. Now, the older is a transsexual and the younger, very likely gay. Though these developments are causes for celebration in progressive America, the driver is none too pleased. His wife, “Had we known they would turn out this way, we would have stayed in Vietnam.”
A Viet manicurist, Vu, spends ten months a year in Ferguson, MO, then two months in Saigon, where he keeps his wife and five-year-old son. They live with ten other people in her parents’ home. In Ferguson, Vu has a basement apartment and practically no social life, “On my days off, I might not speak to another person for an entire day. The guy above me is also Vietnamese, but we don’t hang out much.” Taking out his phone, Vu showed me a photo of some middle-aged dude with his face on a kitchen table, with beer cans around him, “He often drinks alone until he passes out. Sometimes he even pisses on himself!”
With us was a man who had never been to the US, so Vu turned to him, “The US is like a cemetery!” he laughed, “but people don’t know it, because they only see American films! There is no one on the streets and you have no idea what your neighbors are doing. They could be dead, and you wouldn’t know it!”
With virtually no zoning laws, nearly every Vietnamese neighborhood is residential, commercial and industrial, which makes Vietnam freer, in at least one respect, than “the freest country on earth.” Just outside Saigon, I saw a house that had added a factory to its front plot, plus a row of rental cells for workers, with each just large enough for a bed, small table, two plastic stools and a motorcycle.
With everywhere open for business, you’ll find signs advertising just about everything even in an alley, “HERE WE CAN FIX IRONS, RICE COOKERS AND ELECTRIC FANS,” “ENGLISH, CHEMISTRY AND MATH TUTORING,” “DRIVER AND VAN FOR HIRE,” “FURNITURE FOR RENT,” “NEW! TOM YUM! THE REAL DEAL!” “JAPANESE BLACK GARLIC PREVENTS CANCER, REVERSES AGING, PROTECTS THE LIVER.” Seeing sushi being sold for 8 and 16 cents in 90-degree heat, I wisely moved on.
With such a density of humanity, there’s always a very public and drawn out funeral nearby, so death is a constant presence, but a Vietnamese funeral is mostly a free, multi-day concert of funky traditional music, as boisterous, chaotic life swarms all around it.
I noticed a 60-ish woman who was busy with her broom. Walking next to her, I smiled, “Sister, you’re sweeping everybody’s trash!”
“You know, brother, I just had an eye operation.”
“And it went well!”
“Yes, I can see pretty clearly. I have glaucoma. The operation was free.”
“That’s pretty good!”
“Yes, there is this program. Even people from the provinces come up for it.”
“Were the doctors foreign?”
“No, Vietnamese, but I think the funding is foreign.”
It’s also domestic, I later found out. Vietnamese medical care is often a nightmare, however, with appalling overcrowding of up to four adults or six children to a bed. Basic nursing services are routinely performed by a patient’s relatives, who sleep on the floor in jam-packed hospital rooms, hallways or even elevator lobbies.
Intent, the lady swept some paper and plastic trash, then looked up, “I hear that regular glasses are better than charity ones. Is that true?”
I stared at her goggle-like pair, “These seem fine to me!”
Suddenly, a motorcyclist rode right up to us, “Why are you sweeping the street, ma?! You just had an eye operation!”
Since her daughter looked quite pissed, I said a quick goodbye, then left.
With American-styled zoning laws, the Vietnamese alley would become commercially and socially barren, for buying and selling bring people together. In gangster Capitalist America, this human fact has been distorted into mere trips to the malls and big box stores, for only in ghettos and barrios can you still find peddlers and sidewalk vendors, where a shopping cart loaded with whatever is a roving store or restaurant. As their economy and way of life devolve, however, more Americans will resort to these tiniest business practices, just like their forefathers. Are we not men? We are post-collapse Americans!
In upscale developments, Vietnamese are aiming for American-styled sterility, however, for the houses there are no longer open for business or neighbors. Behind high walls and formidable gates, they are fortresses for fat cats who are increasingly irritated, disgusted or fearful of nearly everything Vietnamese. Chauffeured to school in air-conditioned cars, their burger and French fries-fed kids learn more English than Vietnamese.
Outside those Americanized enclaves, a Vietnamese can still thrive and do as he pleases with his own home, and if he earns more, he can add floors and repaint it whatever colors, things most Americans can’t do, a fact that astonishes my Viet friends, “But it’s your own home! Isn’t it a free country?”
If you’re, say, a computer repairman, why not have a glass case selling cigarettes, snacks and drinks in your shop, since you’re sitting there anyway? In Philadelphia, a Vietnamese street vendor of fruit salads made the news because he decided to sell panty hoses also, and why not, since nearly all of his customers were women.
On my afternoon walk yesterday, a woman in her mid-40’s said, “Did you come from afar? We haven’t seen you around here.”
“I lived in the US for many years, but my wife and I are making arrangements to move back. Things aren’t all that great over there.”
“Yes, move back!” Then, “I hear there’s a volcano in the US. If it erupts, the entire country will be gone!”
“Well, I don’t think that’s their main worry,” and left it at that.
In the US, I gravitated towards bars because those were the only places I could mingle. As you well know, there is no bustling square or sidewalk in a typical American neighborhood, and hardly anyone knows anyone outside work, the bar or online.
Traveling little, most Americans don’t realize that every other society has many readily-accessible spaces for any man to enjoy his neighbors’ company, but perhaps they don’t want that anyway, for it would cut into their world highest 4.5 hours of televised brainwashing daily, plus addiction to the smart phone, online games, masturbatory websites and canned music, heard mostly alone, the very antithesis of music’s purpose. Moreover, American pop music is really top down mass indoctrination, with all the top acts groomed and elaborately produced to poison the entire world.
With relentless spectacles and noises, an inner life becomes impossible. Long anomic, Americans are now increasingly doped up with downers, which makes human contacts even more aggravating, so friendships and sex are mostly in pixels. Forced to be together, they crank up the volume, check FaceBook or text away, for to look someone in the eye has become cruel and unusual punishment.
With each in solitary confinement, it’s no surprise Americans are unable to mount any meaningful resistance against their masters, though, so fogged up, most don’t even who their rapists are. Whipped up by several layers of fake media, they froth against puppets.
To emigrate, a man must divorce his society, so he’s already a betrayer, even if justifiably, but in his new home, he must strive to join another community, except now, in one place, everything is virtual or fake, so there’s nothing to latch onto. As the ship goes down, each enraged citizen is trapped in his windowless cabin.