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What I miss about Vietnam

What I miss about Vietnam

Sunday, May 12, 2024, 16:59 GMT+7
What I miss about Vietnam
Vendors gather for chit-chat in Vietnam.

I've written at least ten versions of this rambling, rudderless rant, drifting from one memory to another.

Each foray has left me all teared up about the finest moments, pining for my local pals, overwhelmed by waves of nostalgia, or all three in unison.

Since leaving Vietnam 1.5 years ago and retaking an international perspective, the treasures I have always held so close to my heart are clearer and dearer.

Life in Vietnam is so transparent, real, raw, and authentic, with that layer of politically correct veneer we find in slicker countries noticeably absent.

Vietnamese people do not have time for fancy doublespeak and “You have a nice day” shtick.

The average person is too busy trying to eke out a living or hurrying to get ahead to fiddle with cheesy catchphrases and false pleasantries.

Compared to wealthier countries, Vietnam boasts a large contingent of entrepreneurs, and they leave a unique personal imprint on daily life.

The fruit vendors, motorbike taxi drivers, soup stall and rice shop owners all hustle every day or they make no money.

That volume of self-employment creates an environment with lots of moving parts all shooting off on different tangents, with the commotion and din that accompany it.

And that is how Vietnam with its little warts ends up at the top of the heap of all the countries I have lived in.

It's the people.

It seems nearly every Vietnamese person we bump into is some sort of a character – full of personality, informal, natural, open and transparent, and above all quick-witted.

I could choose any one of dozens of my regular haunts but let’s start with the ‘tap hoa’ (corner store) across the street from where I resided.

It's like entering a cave, dangerously dark inside due to poor lighting, a musty, moldy ‘bouquet’ lingering, crap suspended from the ceiling banging me on the head every step I took, and products strewn all over the floor or haphazardly piled up and forgotten.

The marketing strategy is ‘The more we can fit inside, more we can sell,’ with no thought of merchandising and display.

Customers have to ask for stuff because it's impossible to find anything except those strips of powdered laundry detergent packets that hang over the cash counter like holiday ornaments.

Customer requests are invariably followed by rat-like rummaging noises emanating from the darkness, then the boss emerges a bit worse for wear, clutching a vintage Maradona Boca Juniors card.

Well, not quite Maradona, but they have nearly everything that could not be procured in supermarkets.

If an urgently needed item is not in stock, such as an ingredient for a birthday cake needed that same day, the boss will hop on his bike and roar off to fetch it.

The owners are a couple, both of whom speak English very well – noteworthy since they must only use it on rare occasions due to a lack of foreigners in that scruffy neighborhood.

They've sent their three sons to medical school in Ho Chi Minh City (doesn't everyone these days?) so if they chose, they could easily retire and live in the lap of luxury, but they won't.

Making a contribution and staying active irrespective of one's wealth and age are built right into Vietnamese DNA.

Oh, how I miss that shop!

Speaking of corner stores, that term is a misnomer these days since most do not occupy a corner plot of land as they once did.

On my street there is another shop that not only occupies the corner, it's in the corner.

The neighborhood’s main thoroughfare terminates at a narrow cross street forming a T-junction.

Two shops at right angles to each other face their respective streets leaving a small triangular gap in the corner shaped like a slice of your mom's cherry pie.

That gap narrows progressively from the street ending in a scary, dark vertex jammed with wrinkled old plastic bags.

God only knows what lurks beneath and behind those bags.

The ‘squat’ (as I call it) is run by two grumpy old spinsters who have always treated me with great disdain and suspicion.

They have an arrogant, fat, old white and black cat perched on a crate in the middle of the action, thus blocking all movement at the entrance.

I would never have set foot in the place, but my hand was forced because over time I'd exhausted all the nearby culinary options and decided to make my own food.

I scrounged a table top propane gas cooker only to discover that the spinsters had cornered the local market on those little spray can-type cylinders that clip in and fire up the stove.

So every week I grit my teeth and bought their canisters, navigating around their glares and that cat.

Food shopping was a snap because all I needed to do was look down from my window and survey the morning's offerings from the local portable market lady.

She'd roll up at dawn on a rickety old motorbike, plastic bags dangling from both handle bars flush with produce, meat, and fish, plus of course her cleaver, teeny weeny kiddy stool, weigh scale, cutting board, mallet, and knives.

I’d holler out my desires, careful not to request premium items needed by the elderly, less mobile residents.

“Can I buy that ‘ca loc’?” (snakehead fish) I also need the fixings for ‘canh chua’ (sour soup) too!”

The one and only time the flow of business was interrupted was when a new born baby had a red bum, possibly from diapers.

Mom marched that baby out to the alley and every woman dropped what they were doing to inspect it, offering advice on how best to treat that delicate little round red butt.

Even the market lady dropped her business-like tone to join in the diagnosis.

Despite all the ambience, neither the ‘tap hoa,’ the wedge-shaped spinsters’ squat, nor the portable alley market takes first place as the most intriguing entrepreneurial venture in the neighborhood.

That honor is bestowed on a hovel a few streets over and down an alley.

Along the alley is a house with a large terrace jutting over a sloped incline leaving a space underneath big enough for a tiny shack fronting on the alley.

What originally caught my eye was a plastic bag full of scrumptious baguettes hanging on a nail outside the entrance.

The baguettes aren't the classic cylindrical shape, rather they're tapered at each end forming tear drop shapes and are slightly rounder at the middle point, more in the direction of a rugby or gridiron ball.

Inside the dilapidated lean-to there's always a hen party going on like there's no tomorrow.

I had to bend over to fit through the doorway, and once inside the focal point is a scruffy table displaying various cuts of pork, chicken, and beef, including gizzards, bones, feet, ears, and organs.

Technically, it's a business, but it's more of a meeting place given I always saw the same four women inside having an animated discussion.

As probably the only foreigner to ever cross the threshold and venture inside the hut, shack, or whatever we want to call it, I was an instant hit.

We immediately dispensed with the mandatory Vietnamese pleasantries:

“Where are you from? 

Do you live here?

Are you married?

Why aren't you married?”

(The concept of being unmarried always irks Vietnamese women, who see each person as half of a couple.)

In addition to those divine baguettes, truth is there was precious little on offer, the best being the meats with wilted vegetables coming in a distant second.

There were dusty, skunky-looking jars of ‘dua chua’ (pickled mustard greens) and ‘do chua’ (radish and carrot) that look like they've been around for so long they'd scare off any potential buyer.

What is the common thread connecting these businesses?

They're all small businesses and they're run by riotous characters!  

Even the spinsters would make anyone snicker, sitting around with sour looks on their faces running a business with nearly no customers.

Living overseas has many components – historic sites, fancy buildings and monuments, business, technology, fine arts, food, and architecture – but all those fade over time.

It's all about the colorful people whose paths cross ours, and Vietnam is my undisputed champion of unforgettable characters.

Rick Ellis / Tuoi Tre News Contributor

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