In developing countries many people live in real time, from hand to mouth, starting afresh nearly every day. There’s no time to sit around, no buffer, no “manana” (tomorrow) attitude. Money must be made every day or there isn’t anything to eat, it’s that simple.
Right at the top of the list for motion - and commotion - is Vietnam, constant churn, chaos, and disarray, but with a positive tone to it all because people are getting things done, getting that food on the table.
I was on a little stroll recently when a woman in a monumental struggle popped into view. She was a diminutive lady, maybe 1.50 meters tall at most, and skinny as a rail - if she topped 40 kilos I’d be surprised.
She had a rickety old motorbike that looked like it was about to fall apart right then and there, and was fighting desperately to balance bags of empty cans on the seat and floorboard.
The toughest opponent in the skirmish was a big bag the size and shape of a small sofa - about two meters wide and one meter in diameter. It hung way over each side of the bike, just like in the video clips on social media of ridiculously overloaded vehicles.
It was an absurd caricature - a David and Goliath moment - with that tiny woman trying to put a bag larger than herself on the motorbike.
She was also trying to strap on other bags the size of the largest typical household green garbage bag - even they were nearly as big as her.
As I walked by an alarm went off in my head and I heard myself blurt out “can than!” (which means “careful!” in Vietnamese). It was just a friendly warning based on the size of the woman versus the bags.
Despite being borderline hopeless in Vietnamese, I can usually find a way to convey most messages by combining my mispronunciations with a touch of pantomime, a few gestures, then finally tossing in a phrase or two from another language for good measure. It’s more about will than skill, with a bit of luck often tossed in because that expression is relatively easy to pronounce.
Exactly why I mustered up that “can than” will forever remain a mystery - it just popped out of my mouth. The woman responded with a determined glance, then went on about her business. The message of her expression was crystal clear: “Everybody out of my way - I’m taking these cans to sell and I need the money for my family.”
I carried on walking for a moment, then heard the steely bang of metal crashing against the pavement, followed by a crunching sound as the bike went over on its side squashing a bunch of cans in the process.
Just as I spun around to investigate the source of the noise, the woman called out to me for help, which touched me - I was flattered that she counted on me. Involving a foreigner in a local drama is not without its risks, so people in this part of the world typically avoid doing so thinking it will lead to trouble or, at the very least, a misunderstanding.
Maybe that verbal warning made her realize I’d been around Vietnam for a while, not just a tourist passing through, so she wasn’t shy to reach out, plus she was probably in a hurry to get home.
I hurried back to the scene and it was hopeless. Woman, big bags, cans all over the place, and one rickety motorbike. My first instinct was to hail a taxi, throw the whole lot inside, and be done with it, but before I could collect my thoughts, I’d picked up the bike and she was already busy with the bags.
A man from the other side of the street came over to help and we gathered up the cans that had fallen. Then my role was to straddle the front wheel of the motorbike and steady it using the handlebars, while he was on one side trying to help the woman put the bags atop the motorbike and she was on the other side fighting with the whole mess.
She got the two big bags up on the bike seat, then we started adjusting and fiddling both straps and the load to optimize balance. For me, it was easy to see she wouldn’t get far, but of course we foreigners underestimate the ingenuity of the Vietnamese in these situations.
They tweaked some more, then she tied down the bags with plastic cords, and finally it seemed ok - to them. To me that rickety load looked like an accident waiting to happen.
Goodness knows I’ve been hanging around this part of the world long enough to know how things work, but given the woman’s diminutive stature, I couldn’t believe she was going to drive off with such precariously loaded cargo. It was definitely a man-sized task, and even though we see women doing every type of labour here, that job was a big one for such a small lady.
If everything went well in front, there was no way she could see anything behind or even beside her - like a race horse wearing blinkers, which, seen through Western eyes, was a recipe for disaster.
There was no point in lecturing on the danger of the whole situation as neither the woman nor the man from across the street sensed any hazard. What to a foreigner is a balancing act worthy of any circus is just another day in the office for people in this country, even for that small woman, so I held back, realizing it was not the time to debate the safety aspects of her journey.
The man from across the street tipped his cap and said, “Thank you sir." The woman said, “Thank you” - she didn’t know the word “sir." If anything, I was embarrassed, having contributed precious little to the rescue and reload effort.
In my memory I can still see her setting sail tentatively on that ancient motorbike, listing from one side to the other under all that load as she gained speed. Then all I could see was a rear wheel and a huge bag as the motorbike wobbled down the street. She’d go straight for a bit, then suddenly lapse into several erratic drunken swerves as the load overpowered her, then she’d regain control and go straight for a bit.
It was a strange twist to an innocent little stroll, but I’m sure she got home safely even if it meant dragging her motorbike and every bloody can one by one down the street.
It’s true that life here has its share of disarray, and it’s frustrating sometimes, but that’s exactly what brings out the beauty. Everything isn’t perfectly choreographed, hygienic, and orderly, so for many people reality and necessity provide no glossy facades to hide behind.
Survival is often in the balance for those who live hand to mouth, so feelings are aired and souls are bared, leaving everything exposed for all to see.
For me, there’s a lesson in there somewhere every day.