I wander around the neighbourhood which I call home these days, exchanging banter with the shopkeepers and business owners that line the street. They’re all in a good mood raking it in. Lots of tourists mean business is brisk and property values are going through the roof.
For every feel-good tale about people in Vietnam who live well and enjoy the improving economy, there are 10, 50, or 100 stories about others who struggle to get by – particularly the older generation.
I admit I always look for the positive but I can’t get a couple of stories of tough lives out of my mind – stark reminders of how some people just scrape by each day. All the good news people like me spread in the media is only part of the story.
I’m well familiar with how the Egg Lady lives even though we can’t communicate except for the odd word and phrase. She has trouble moving around – she struggles to keep her balance, often looking for something to hold on to when standing. I’d say she’s in her 50s but looks older – age takes its toll quickly among the impoverished.
Like most outdoor vendors, she has a little corner staked out on the street where we live – hers is near the classy European-style stone staircase that leads down several flights to the main thoroughfare below.
Her customers stroll along our street or venture up those stairs from below, so her location is strategic – the old staircase is a backdrop with character, thus attracting curious tourists.
The Egg Lady lives in a warren of rooms and apartments which were built clinging to the steep hill supported by steel beams and concrete. I see her emerging with her eggs, condiments, grill, fuel, and stools that make up her little stall, and if I time it just right in the afternoon I can haul it all down the street for her.
She’s perched on her stool in the late afternoon and evening every day – rain or shine – selling partially developed duck embryos (trung vit lon), and cute little boiled spotted quail eggs (trung cut).
The other morning she called me and gestured at a package sitting on the street at the entrance to her alleyway. That was the first time she’d ever called me – I guess there was nobody else around to help. It turned out it was the morning delivery of eggs, so I picked up the box and followed her down the alley.
As I made my way down several flights of stairs to her room, heads popped out of windows and doors, everyone wondering what the heck “the white guy” was doing on their turf, but the smiles were warm – they know the Egg Lady’s daily routine and saw the package.
That’s when I got a slap in the face reminding me of how tough life is for many people in Vietnam – my rose-coloured glasses were suddenly torn off and reality exposed.
We went down three flights of stairs (no idea how she gets up and down them all) to a cluster of four rooms – hers in the back corner. She opened the door so I could haul the package inside to reveal a dank, musty stench amid almost total darkness.
The room was no more than a hole in the wall – 12 or at most 15 square meters, a little bed, no kitchen or facilities at all that I could see, but hopefully there is at least running water. I dared not survey the room too closely thinking it would be rude.
I’m not easily shocked but I was blown away to find these conditions in a lovely part of the city, not some slum.
And that’s how the Egg Lady lives – one day and one box of eggs at a time.
Many months ago, I was taking an after-dinner stroll and spotted a tiny young woman – maybe 1.50 meters tall at most – skinny as a rail too. She had a rickety old motorbike and was trying to balance several enormous bags of empty tin cans and plastic bottles on it.
The biggest bag was the size and shape of a typical small sofa, the ends each hanging way over each side of the bike. The image of that bag and the tiny woman was like the funny clips we see on social media of people struggling with huge loads on motorbikes. It would have been funny had I not been right there to witness it.
She was also trying to strap on other bags full of cans and a pile of flattened cardboard boxes tied together with a rope.
As I walked by an alarm went off in my head and I muttered “can than” (“be careful”) because I could see it was a very precarious operation. Bad as my Vietnamese pronunciation was, I could see she understood – she shot me a determined look when she heard me speak.
The look said: “I’m taking these cans to sell and I’m going to feed my family with the money I get. Everybody out of my way.”
I carried on for a bit then heard a thump followed by a crunching bang as the bike went over on its side and the load of cans with it.
The woman called out to me for help – I was later shocked when it sank in. That’s not the Vietnamese way, nor the typical Asian way. Most people can’t speak English and probably don’t want to bother a foreigner, so it’s easier to ask another local. Maybe my “can than” made her realize I was not just passing through as a tourist.
I hurried back to the scene and it was hopeless. Woman, huge bags full of cans, one rickety motorbike. My first instinct was to hail a taxi and throw the whole lot inside and be done with it, but before I could collect my thoughts, the lady was already trying to get the bike upright again, so I grabbed it too.
A man from the other side of the street came over to help and we managed to get all the bags up on the motorbike, then started balancing the load, tweaking and fiddling with straps and bags. Seemed to me like that little lady wasn’t going to get far schlepping all that stuff, but what appeared impossible to me is a daily chore for her.
My last recollection is the motorbike sputtering off in the distance weaving drunkenly going down the road until it picked up enough speed to glide smoothly. My heart was in my mouth the whole time until it finally disappeared from view.
It was a strange twist to an after-dinner stroll, but I knew she got home – even if it meant dragging her motorbike and every bloody can one by one down the street.
Just another day for the Egg and Recycling Ladies until they wake up tomorrow to do it all over again.