The daily sights and sounds of Saigon never fail to disappoint.
Take “Goldfish Alley”, the street to which the guy in this picture is no doubt headed. It contains, on most days, about half a dozen enthusiastic traders offering what I can only reason, given the hot weather here, is something more akin to a boil-in-the-bag dinner for one, rather than a new pet for the kids.
But, if you live in Saigon and want to buy a pet fish, even if its life expectancy is dubious, then you know where to go.
Just like if you want to buy a safe, you come to Vo Van Tan street, where you can find five (I counted them once) safe shops within the space of one hundred metres. Very practical, and although you’d be inclined to think otherwise, it clearly makes business sense to have the same outlets side by side. In the same way that Saville Row might be the place in London to which a certain grade of customer would go to buy a suit.
Going one better than encounters with Saigon’s lesser spotted goldfish, this morning I watched as a biker, complete with a (metre long) shark strapped precariously to the back of his spluttering motorbike, weaved past me in the cluttered rush hour traffic. No protective, freezer packed container, just the tail chopped off, and everything else intact for all the world to see.
“Of course”, you eventually muse to yourself, “and why not?” … some restaurant, somewhere, has bought a shark and, we are in Vietnam, where – as has been routinely demonstrated to you by the countless million other bizarre and lethal examples of Saigon “scooter bling” that adorn the city’s two wheeled vehicles – rather than select other more conventional modes of transport, giving Mr Shark a ‘backy’ on a clapped out old Honda is deemed the most efficient (and, no doubt, the most cost effective) way to transport said item from warehouse to buyer.
Indeed, what’s all the fuss about? Person over there is selling half-baked goldfish. Person over here is making his living couriering random seafood around the city. If ever you wanted an example of an entrepreneurial nation, or of what gutsy invention and resilience looks like, you have come to the right place.
Stepping out for a coffee later in the morning, I was approached by a young guy selling bike helmets. He had built a mobile container (essentially, a wooden box on a trolley) and then hung some of the helmets along the edge, using an array of coat hooks. No doubt purchased from a shop that only sells coat hooks.
He was selling kids’ ones mainly, but that didn’t stop him pitching to me. His opening price being the equivalent to £3.00. Not the optimal amount of money one would normally associate with the purchase of essential head-gear.
On the other side of the road, I then catch sight of an elderly blind man, white stick in one hand and a wad of lottery tickets in the other, navigating the opposite pavement. He carefully tip-toes, and then half stumbles, around protruding trees and swarms of locals eating their early lunchtime bowls of noodles, as well as an assortment of street vending carts, bicycles and rubbish bins, strewn randomly up the street.
As if visual impairment, coupled with a livelihood based around the sales of five cent lottery tickets, is not enough of a test on its own, throw into the mix having to do this on the chaotic streets of Saigon!
Just as I was beginning to ponder another train of logic in my head, similar to that of the shark sighting a few hours before, about coat hooks, bike helmets and lottery tickets, the man bumps into a passer-by, who duly buys a ticket, and then engages in affable chit-chat for a few moments, whilst I wait for my drink.
Helmet guy then crosses the road, having given up on me, and joins their conversation. He also buys a lottery ticket, whilst simultaneously offering up one of the more fetching examples (bright orange) from his designer line of helmets. There is much animated discussion, followed by eruptions of laughter.
Although I don’t understand what they have been saying, I can almost guarantee you that helmet guy had tried to sell one of his items to the blind lottery seller (probably with genuine intent) before the passer-by had intervened to suggest that promoting the merits of a motorbike helmet to a man who can’t actually see was, even by Vietnamese standards, somewhat chancing the arm.
This is everyday life in Saigon, and across Vietnam, and in countless other places. It’s normal.
Anything about it which seems abnormal, out of place, really only speaks to the expectations that one associates with what “normal” actually means. As Yang Liu describes so effectively in her work, referred to in the last post, each of us – mercifully, it transpires – places value on different things in life.
From the moment we arrived in Vietnam, it has been a privilege to learn about the cultural nuances, norms and habits that uniquely define the country. Each day offers up such fresh and unexpected situations and conversations.
That we all think, feel and behave differently is a blessed relief. That living in Saigon often seems to spark an appreciation and awareness about what matters in life, however, is not so much about humility, but about being connected to alternative trajectories of thought and of action.
It is not necessarily that we must always see the world through a different lens, learn to compromise, or reframe the value we might place on things.
Instead, perhaps, it is that we should try and begin by at least imaging what it is exactly we’d have to lose if we didn’t.