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The small things in Vietnam

Sunday, January 13, 2019, 11:59 GMT+7
The small things in Vietnam
A 'banh mi' stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Michael Dolan

Christmas 2018 and its holiday cheer has finally passed out of my system along with all the sugar and delicious fats, but one thing still lingers. My regret for not being thankful to something I cherish most in Ho Chi Minh City, or should I say some people? I am in gratitude to the street merchants, vendors and service providers posted at nearly every corner of the city.

You can be quite grandiose when thinking about the amazing attributes of living in Vietnam. The endless hot days, the varying food dishes, the friendly people, the stunning landscape or the vibrancy on the streets, but first I think it is important to appreciate the small things. Why this comes to mind right now? Well, not too long before writing this, I was in need of these street merchants like a damsel in distress. For most expats living here, you’ll know the feeling of setting off on your bike when you sense something is off. Your backside seems to wobble. Small potholes that usually have no need for attention start to jolt the whole bike underneath, threatening to sling parts off your engine. You’ve got a flat tyre. Flats tyres in Vietnam are nearly as common and as pesky as mosquito bites and getting them fixed is just as simple.

A cafe stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Michael Dolan
A cafe stall in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Michael Dolan

After passing one tyre mechanic on the road pretty close to where it happened, I was a little perturbed when he looked at me and ushered me onward to someone else. I rode the length of the street to another mechanic who diagnosed the problem. The issue was not the tyre but rather the new rental itself. There was no stand underneath the engine to prop up the back wheel. After a little bit of begging, we managed to get the bike up on a metal frame and thus solve the problem of the ripped tube. Though a job usual for one man, it now took three of us to steady it in case the bike was to collapse and fall on my hero of the night. I paid up and as I drove home I realised why I love this city.

If you live in Dublin and London, the major cities of Ireland and England, getting a flat is quite an ordeal. Not insofar as you need therapy (nine out of ten times anyway), but more that it is quite a nuisance when it happens. I thought of all the other things that I can get with ease and at a decent price here in Ho Chi Minh City and I forget that I can take them for granted. The tyre mechanics, for instance, have saved my hide many times. I am indebted to the cobbler near where I used to live but still go too. I have had the same pair of shoes for nearly two years due to his expertise in mending them. I enjoy his wide smile when we greet and his neighbouring cigarette vendor whose usual sullen wrinkled face folds up to expose an infectious toothless smirk as she laughs at the massive slippers I must wear while I wait. I am beholden for his hesitancy when I try to give him tips for the swiftness of his work.

I am grateful to the woman who seems to find making a banh mi the most hilarious process in the world as she grins at me from the corner of her eye. She thinks it’s the oddest thing not to put fish sauce or pate on my bread and loves to mock me every time in that jovial way I find most Vietnamese love to do. After she hands me one of the most delicious sandwiches I’ve ever had, she nods and says flatly with two ‘level’ tones, “O K”, to which I mimic back to her and politely salute with tam biet (goodbye), which sends her into another hysterics as I mess up the low tone nodding my head like a lunatic.

A tyre repair shop in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Michael Dolan
A tyre repair shop in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam. Photo: Michael Dolan

A massive thank you must go to the little coffee stand that I pass on my way to work that has a down-scale version of a McDonald’s Drive Tru. It’s a small thing, I know, however, it must be a real pain in the you-know-where to stand hours in the smog-filled street and baking sun whilst still having the energy to churn out an aromatic ca phe sua da then muster the strength to deliver it to you with a smile too genuine to be allowed past UK border control.

The list could go on of the many other street merchants one can find in Ho Chi Minh City like the pavement barber or the back street tailors. Also, it is redundant to talk about how the costs of these services compare to back home in London or Dublin. However, I would say that they are much simpler to find here and when you do find them, they usually greet you with a kind of warmth that melts your heart like the ice in your ca phe sua da. Most times when you get a service done back home, you are often met with the feeling that you’ve done something wrong and leave apologetically having asked them to do their jobs. The difference in attitude in the service industry compared to back home is definitely a story for another day. For now I would like to keep this entry all about the people that I want to talk about most. The people who have made my life here both directly and indirectly easier and a pleasure. So here is my belated Christmas thank you. I wish you every success and happiness in 2019.

Michael Dolan / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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