Having just returned from Southeast Asia, I find myself asking an important if imprecise question: Why is the quality of life in Ho Chi Minh City something like infinitely greater than that in New York City?
A lovely, moving though (to me) flawed passage occurs in Walter Benjamin’s impressions of Naples, a description that also captures the sense of life in the huge Cholon (Chinatown) section of Ho Chi Minh City, on which my ideas about Vietnam are based. (Note, nothing I say is meant to suggest that Vietnam is not a repressive society, a point I will return to at the end.)
Everything in this passage seems just right, but it and the essay in which it is found stops short in one respect. The Italian city seems to have gained its life quality simply from the architecture, but, as I see it, what creates such a city, at least as I have experienced it in Cholon over the last four summers, are larger contextual differences, and it is these that so distinguish such a city quarter from those in America.
A lot of this difference is based on the simple fact that Vietnam is a tropical country, hot year round, one in which only the very few with money can afford air conditioning. But let me lay out some major differences, many of which stem from that.
1) No clear differentiation between home and street.
First off, since it is so hot, most stores and houses do not have a single entrance door, but rather a large grating or screen that rolls up removing the whole front wall. This grating is left up all day. In the houses on main streets, such openness doesn’t reveal much in that the broad front room is reserved for the parking of motor bikes. (Every adult in the family has a motorcycle or scooter.)
In alleys, things are different. By “alleys,” I mean the smaller lanes, too small to admit cars but onto which numerous shops and homes open. My wife’s 40-year-old niece, Ah Phong, along with her husband and three young adult children, live in one of these alleys. Coming in from the main street and walking past the eight or nine houses that precede hers, I felt as if I were walking past a row of stage sets since, with shutters up, everything taking place in the front rooms is unashamedly on view. In one house, perhaps, a little girl would be doing her homework; in another a granny would be watching TV; in one right adjacent to Phong’s, her neighbor, who sold desserts on the street, such as hot, sweetened tofu; hot black bean paste and a tofu/mango dish, would be cooking. Most colorfully, one house, which operated a gambling parlor, would always have five to eight men perched on little red chairs, hard at a game of cutthroat mahjong.
Whenever we walked through these alleys, say, to visit the barber, we would pass a series of lively interiors. By the way, my wife Nhi swore by the barber, whom we visit every year, while I dread a visiting him. He cuts my little remaining hair, which is fine. Then his female assistant gives me a “close” shave. She puts a clear lather on my face and then takes a single razor blade between her thumb and forefinger. Not an elaborate razor just the little, square blade. It’s a bit scary to have my neck and cheek scraped with the bare implement.
Anyway, I guess another precondition of this openness is that, for one, many people, such as the dessert maker, operate businesses right out of their front rooms, and, for two, most people live in extended families, with parents, kids, brothers of parents, their families, grandparents, and so on, squeezed in one place, so someone is always home, and, for three, everyone knows and watches out for their neighbors. So, leaving your front room open is fairly safe.
I couldn’t help feeling, given this texture of daily life, the naturalness and informality of such settings contrasts vividly with the circumscribed, hidden-behind-closed-doors feeling of New York City.
2) Little distinction between commercial and industrial pursuits
By this heading, I mean that most commercial stores combine shops and workshops.
Let me describe, for example, the store where I went to buy a new bathing suit. (I wasn’t allowed in the Saigon pool because, according to the life guard, my suit, which passes muster in NY pools, looked like a pair of shorts!) On the sidewalk in front of the sporting goods store, two young women sat on stools unstringing tennis rackets. Next to them a man sat in front of a peculiar, hot-plate-sized gadget with a circle in the middle and a set of prongs and screws around the edges. On it, he was tightening the strings that he had re-laced into used rackets.
Another case. Nhi wanted to buy a blouse so we went to a retail store to look at its selection. The boss nodded at us and went back to what she had been doing: drawing the outlines of paper patterns onto pieces of fabric. On a table beside hers, a woman was cutting along these outlines, and, next to her, as well as at two visible tables in the back room, women were at sewing machines, stitching the fabric pieces together. In other words, along with selling clothes, they were dressmakers.
A third case. We used to eat breakfast, rice noodles, at a café in an alley. As I said, these lanes were too small for cars, but a good place for motorcycles, which used to whiz by our table. On one side of the alley sit the tables, two in all, where customers dine. On the other side, directly across, is the space where dishes are washed and food is cooked. The staff consists of a lady boss and three females workers, All of them clean, cook and serve. So as we ate and chatted, across from us, on a typical day, one woman would be squatting at a washing pot on the ground, scrubbing pots and putting them in another basin, where she would later rinse them with a garden hose. Another would be standing at an outdoor stove, cooking chicken in a wok. A third, also squatting at a basin, would be washing and trimming leaves off a Chinese vegetable. Another would be serving people at another series of tables, three or four, further down the alley.
What about outdoor stands? At one we ordered banh voc, a spring roll-type concoction. The stand owner spread noodle batter on a hot griddle. When that was cooked, she put it on a plate, packed in vegetables (carrot slices, sprouts, lettuce leaves) and pork, then wrapped the noodles and served it. These examples could be multiplied indefinitely, citing motorcycle showrooms cum repair shops, pennant making establishments, places where herbal medicines were ground up and retailed. The point is that all this manufacturing was done in commercial stores and so visible to the shoppers and, as the store usually extended out onto the sidewalk, to all passersby.
What a contrast. All this productive work is hidden in America as if the elite who manage our affairs do not want people to be constantly aware, as they are in Vietnam, of the labor it takes to produce life in society.
But let’s say more about labor.
3) Casual labor
I’ve already indicated in my alley restaurant example how the boss and workers shared most duties, but there’s another aspect to work as carried on in these enterprises that is equally worth noting. (And since my wife is both choosy and talkative, I’ve spent hours in dress shops, bathing suit stores and other shops, watching people on the job.)
To start with a contrast, it’s fairly obvious that: America is the world’s capital of busy work. If a clerk in a store in the U.S. has no customers, the manager will have her or him stocking shelves, doing inventory, dusting; anything but chilling.
In Vietnam, one’s work time is partly one’s own. In the dressmaking shop I mentioned, one sewer got a personal call and stopped work to chat for 10 minutes; another got up abruptly from her machine, leaving the dress half done, and exited. She came back in 10 minutes with an iced coffee.
But here’s a better example. Every year we get the same second floor front room in the same Chinese hotel. Directly across from us is a women’s clothing store, which is open from 9 to 9 and which we watch when we come out to observe the street. It is run by an older woman, presumably the owner, and a teenager, the help. The teenager mops the floor every morning, waits on customers and straightens things. She also talks on the phone, has visits from her friends, which may last 30 minutes, eats lunch on the one step of the shop and perches there to sip iced drinks. At about 8:30 every evening, her boyfriend pulls up on his motorbike and helps her shut up. And this is no sub rosa activity. Most of the time when the teenager is doing what an American manager would label “goofing off,” the boss is right there, maybe even joining in the chats or drinking iced coffee beside her worker.
Perhaps this is exceptional. Maybe, for instance, the teenager is the owner’s daughter. Even so, such behavior is something I constantly witnessed in all the shops I spent my time in.
Let me give one last illustration. We saw the most dramatic example of the loose reins management holds on labor due to a chance occurrence. One evening we were strolling past a largely untenanted shopping center near our hotel. The only viable, indeed, thriving business there is the Thuan Kieu banquet-style restaurant, in which we once had lunch. It had been fairly busy when we visited, but this evening it seemed a diner magnet. Well-dressed people were queuing up to park their motorbikes in the lot and crowds were pouring into the building, many exiting taxis and most clutching little pink tickets in their hands.
Curiosity got the best of us, and Nhi asked a guard what was going on. It turns out there is a sort of wedding club that people join, and though they may have been married a few months ago or are getting married in a few months, they all celebrate together in this one big blast: 101 tables. We wanted to peek in and ended up asking if we could eat in any part of the establishment. We were told a space for non-wedding guests was reserved on the third floor.
Thuan Kieu is on the second and third floors, which can be reached by escalators. Nhi thinks these escalators are a big drawing point for the restaurant. She said, “Escalators. For them it is high class. Poor country. For us, it’s nothing.” We took the escalators up with everyone else, and when we reached the unreserved section were in for a surprise.
We entered a room, screened off from the main dining room in which sat about 25 tables, beautifully covered with shining white tablecloths. Also sitting there was about eight or nine waitresses and waiters, drinking tea. Nhi was happy because through the screens we could hear the professional Mandarin singer, crooning a ballad. The one thing lacking was other guests in our section. Every table was empty.
We both wondered that the staff seemed so laid back. After we ordered, Nhi got to talking with a waitress. Everyone was sitting around, the woman said, because they were assigned to this room, where the manager expected the usual full complement of guests. But, perhaps because of the gala, no but Nhi and I had shown up. Since they had been posted here, the boss told them to sit around in case anyone turned up. The huge wedding party was already staffed.
“So you have an easy night,” Nhi said (in Cantonese).
A waiter, who had joined the conversation, said laconically, “Once a year.”
Working conditions were not all that wonderful. The days were 10 hours. Pay was 60,000 dong a day, which comes to about 3 dollars. For comparison, let me note that at a cheap street stand a bowl of noodles would cost about 10,000 dong. They got three days off a month. They did get free food, but no tips. (Neither in Vietnam, nor China, nor HK do people give tips, which are considered demeaning to workers.)
You might wonder how we got all this information, but you have to understand that Nhi is chatty and warm. Our waitress stood talking to us for about 15 minutes and then a waiter came over and joined in. Then a hostess and another waitress joined the assembly. Soon enough, they brought their tea and sat down. (How often did they meet a Chinese woman from America with an American husband to boot?)
The conversation got lively; the teapot was replenished; and, although we only ate two vegetarian dishes, we got as complementary dessert: orange slices, then pineapple slices, then hot, sweetened red bean soup, and finally hot tofu. We spent a long evening of about two and a half hours talking to the staff.
The night ended a bit ironically. When we first came to the dining room, Nhi asked if we could peek past the screens to see the party. The waitress said no; that was forbidden. However, by the end of the meal when we had paid our check, one waiter, who appeared a bit shy and had been listening from the margins of the circle at our table, offered us a tour of the party. The place was packed and still rollicking: children scampered around, people were talking and laughing and an MC on a dais was selecting winning numbers. The numbers alluded to chairs at the tables. At each table’s center were boxes holding electric fans and other gifts. People were now winning prizes based what chairs they were in. There was a broad spiral staircase inside the hall so people could pass from the second to third floor. Going down the stairs, I thought at first we were descending into a large goldfish pond, whose shimmering waters added a surreal quality to the room.
Leaving the excitement of Thuan Kieu, I felt a bit disoriented but thinking more than ever that labor in Vietnam, while overworked and underpaid, at least was not, in stark contrast to that of the U.S., micro-managed, unduly pestered, scrutinized and harassed.
In other words, in Cholon, you do your job, wait on customers and keep the store tidy, but otherwise (on the job) you carry on with your life as you see fit. That means you keep your self respect. But, in America, when you patronize a store or restaurant all you see among the constantly bossed employees is the indignity of labor.
4) Communist Buddhism
Buddhism as I’ve experienced it in New York is already pretty casual. I’m referring to the Buddhism as it is practiced in Chinatown temples. You go in and burn incense and, possibly, shake a container holding chopsticks that have writing on their sides, till one pops up above the rest, giving you your fortune, which, possibly, you ask a monk to interpret for you, though some people just figure it out for themselves.
But Vietnamese Buddhism differs in one respect from this. No monks. I don’t mean none at all are seen, but they are rarely around. My guess is that when the Communists came to power in South Vietnam, they couldn’t outright act to extirpate the religion the way Chinese communists did at one point, especially as the monks had played a big part in combating the South Vietnamese, U.S.-backed government, but they didn’t encourage it. How times change. Now the Buddhist temples in, say, Beijing, Guangzhou or Xi’an, are overflowing with monks and nuns and packed with worshippers. In Cholon, by contrast, while the temples are still packed with worshippers, all the work in the religious institution is carried out by lay brothers and sisters, who sell incense, cook the meals and keep the place clean. Nuns and monks are absent.
And this means all the rites are done, improvised almost, by visiting worshippers. In fact, I’ve noticed that in families often one person becomes the designated religious adept, directing ceremonies and pointing out where to place incense. Let me describe two visits to temples.
Traditionally, a devout family visits (and eats at) the temple twice a month, on the first and fifteenth, going by the Chinese, not Western, calendar. So on the morning of Chinese August 15, we accompanied the available Fong family – the daughters, Ah Pui and Ah Ling were working – to the Long Hoa Temple. It sits on the left bank of the Bach Rong River, a gasoline-soaked waterway that transects the city.
The temple was bustling; its large courtyard swelling with people pulling in and exiting on their motorbikes. As we entered the building, preceded by a couple of mangy dogs, the type that are always roaming through temples, our first sight was of one of the ubiquitous Lotto sellers. Just past her was the shop that sells joss sticks, along with ceramic cats whose left paw is raised to wave in money, candy bars, glass dragons, and Barbie posters. You can see the temple has some qualities of a bazaar.
The structure is built around a deep courtyard, with rooms along the walls, such as the shop and the restaurant, and in the center an open space for trees and plants in which are pavilions housing the god statues. We moved from shrine to shrine, doing three kowtows: bowing our heads and raising and lowering the incense, in front of such luminaries as Lord Guan, Kwan Yin and Buddha. Then we would plant three or so incense sticks in a nearby, ash-thick pot. In one place, we ascended a stairway to a second-story shrine, then went outside and crossed a raised walkway, pushing through bamboo and palms that overhung the bright red and green railings, to another lovely shrine. Throughout Ah Phong was directing our troupe, saying how many sticks to plant for each god, and determining what order we should visit shrines in.
Some gods sat or stood on altars in these separate buildings; others were along the open corridors. One Buddha bestrode a dragon which was itself perched atop a rock formation at the base of which was a large pool, filled with turtles. You could buy a baby one outside to release into this overcrowded lake.
Both the shrines and turtle pools are found in many temples, but something I hadn’t seen was an incense holder placed in front of a large burlap sack. I asked Ah Phong the meaning of this. She said, “Maybe the statue was damaged and they [the lay brothers] don’t want the ancestors [the spirits of the dead] to see that it broke. Probably, those who originally contributed the statue won’t pay for repairs on it.”
The last place we paid respect was at a shelf of urns, which held the ashes of those who had passed away. Then we went to eat breakfast.
The dining room was in a circular, outdoor pavilion, shaded by overhanging branches and bordered by four stone grottoes, corralling the space, each with little replica Buddhas, Kwan Yins and sages on ledges from which water dripped lazily as it might in a cave. The water, shade and thin breeze made it a pleasant place to eat. We had two sorts of vegetable and tofu stuffed dumplings, one with a skin as crisp as a potato chip; noodle-filled egg rolls, vegetable/pineapple fried rice and iced coffee.
What I’m suggesting is the lack of formality and mixture of festivity and solemnity in the crowded temple precincts, where some devotees were doing full kowtows, that is kneeling and lowering their heads to the floor; others, like us, worshipping in a more perfunctory way, all intersecting with wandering dogs, lotto sellers and temple personnel, is a indication of the lack to guidance from any type of religious authority who might instruct one in how to behave.
This democratic ethos was in evidence even at a much more solemn ceremony, which we put on in order to burn incense at the memory tablets of Nhi’s mother, sister and brother, who all drowned (with their bodies washed ashore) when they were trying to escape Vietnam as boat people. Although they had been cremated and their ashes had been scattered over the sea, small wooden plaques with their names on them had been placed in Cholon’s Van Phuc Tu temple.
We started the day with Nhi and Ah Phong going to a religious implements store to buy ghost money, incense sticks and other paraphernalia. I waited in our hotel with Phong’s son Ah Tien (pronounced June) till Nhi came to get us. Phong waited outside because, Nhi said, they could not bring the ghost materials into the building. She said each building has a god of the gate. This god would be angered if, for instance, ghost money were brought on the premises. This money belongs to the ghost to whom you are going to burn it, so bringing it into another building, other than to the temple where it will be burnt, would anger the gate god.
We went to the temple, passed through the courtyard and dropped a small donation in the collection box. From there, we went to the second floor where there were four aisles of glass cases in which were the plaques, wooden paddles containing the names of the dead and, in some cases, small photos. These started above a shelf at waist level and went up about six high. On the ledge below Nhi’s family Phong placed a number of saucers containing dragon fruit, an apple, a green “mandarin” fruit, a package of durian and four cakes. A male attendant came and, in our only interaction with the temple helpers, placed two, squat red candles next to the plates. These provided the flames from which we lit our incense.
While Phong assembled our burnt offerings, the remaining three of us kowtowed to Nhi’s deceased family and placed six sticks in the holder, which was a huge pot on the outside balcony, placed there so there wouldn’t be too much smoke inside. Next, we went, kowtowed and placed incense for the gods in the next room. Then we went through the other aisles of the dead, walking slowing and bowing back and forth to each side so that we wouldn’t neglect to pay homage to these ancestors.
We returned to Phong and helped her place offerings in three large manila envelopes. She had labeled each with the name of one of the deceased, and already placed paper clothing inside. For the women, for instance, this included a dress, shoes and jewelry. Now we put in ghost money, both copies of Chinese currency and of American $100 bills, gold bars and pictures of helper gods, who would aid those in hell as when they got sick or needed a loan. (Note, in Chinese Buddhism, everyone except saints goes to hell to wait for the next reincarnation. While they are there, they live more or less as they did on earth.)
Once the envelopes were stuffed, we went downstairs into the courtyard where there was a large furnace with a blazing fire inside and into which we threw the envelopes. We returned upstairs, disassembled the offerings, gave a tip to the young man who had provided the candles, and went to eat breakfast.
The point is the Vietnamese-Chinese Buddhist family has certain duties to perform, which they do at times of their own choosing, carried out at their own pace, with no contact or seeming interest in what church authorities, such as monks, might recommend. And I’m calling this Communist Buddhism, a religion practiced in a state where, because it is discouraged without being outlawed, had little intact religious hierarchy to direct things, but where worship is carried on in the fervent and abiding practices of large families. And this religious democracy is part and parcel of Cholon’s pervasive informality and spirituality.
As we’ve seen, motorbikes are parked everywhere: in temple courtyards, in the front rooms of people’s domiciles, before restaurants, and, for those shopping or going to do a stint at work, at numerous “lots,” roped off, guarded spaces on sidewalks. When you park at such a lot, you are given a numbered chit and the number is chalked on your motorcycle seat.
Only the poorer people ride bicycles and only the very rich have cars or even take taxis, so the streets are seas of motorcycles and scooters, often the family variety, with a toddler in the front, followed by the dad driving, followed by another young kid, who is bookended by the mother, with, perhaps, an older daughter clinging on the back. Special little rattan seats are made for infants and toddlers to sit in and there are also little pillow with animal designs and straps on each side to hook over the handlebars, cushioning the riding child in front.
As we went everywhere as passengers on these bikes, riding behind Phong or her kids, we experienced from the inside the motorcycle world, one much more amiable, colorful and cheerful than that of car culture.
For one thing, like the houses with raised front walls, motorcycles put everything on display. While helmets are mandatory and people often wear cotton nose and mouths masks to block pollution, how you are dressed, who you are riding with, and what you are carrying are all visible. Watching from a corner or from a bike in the midst, you view or join the cavalcade of people in brilliant plumaged clothes: pinks, reds, yellows and electric greens, see the intertwined relations of the riders, and guess from their uniforms or perhaps from the stacks of packages or foodstuffs being toted, the person’s occupation. Think, in contrast of a street of cars, offering nothing to the sight but a metal skin, locking up any sign of humanity.
And where traveling in a car tends to be a soporific or stupefying , being on a bike in the thick of traffic, edging through the mapped crowds, exposed to the weather, with the wind whipping or caressing your face, is exhilarating. Just as on a NY subway, all around you unfold snippets of human drama between the various riders on motorbikes, and there are brief views of personality, made visible in the distinctive clothing. But unlike on mass transit, one is also touched by the passions of the weather.
6) The Repressive State
This discussion has all the problems of purely impressionist accounts. Being absorbed in describing one particular part of a large city, and a Chinese part at that, in the largely Vietnamese society, my account is hardly representative of all life in Vietnam. In our few forays to the downtown district, the haute elite section, which is now called Saigon, we entered an area of Armani, Starbuck’s and Gaps. This is a realm of air conditioning and Westernized, highly constrained labor, who waited on, not only the rich natives but the flocks of Western tourists who would never step foot in Cholon.
Further, 2013 was the first year in a decade in which the overheated Vietnamese economy, profiting from a shifting of foreign factory investment from China, which pays workers more than Vietnam does, has been decelerating. This year there has also been (I think not coincidentally) a ratcheting up of repression, at least in relation to the Chinese community. Although I don’t know the exact reason — China and Vietnam have been embroiled in disputes concerning rights in the South China Sea — we found that all the Chinese language programs, of which there had been many, were taken off TV. (That doesn’t mean one can’t view any Chinese content, but it’s just not in Chinese. The shows are crudely dubbed into Vietnamese. I mean really crudely. The programmers have one actor, usually a man, translate everything, both the males and females, in a weary monotone.) Also, Chinese affairs are no longer discussed on the daily news broadcasts.
Lastly, the loose control over labor visible in the stores/manufactories is obviously not found in the multinational factories, which the government, albeit a Communist one, bends over backward to lure into the nation.
All this is true. All I’m suggesting is that in a very large swath of the city everyday life is functional in a very different way than it is in the U.S. In this part of Ho Chi Minh City, life is open and playful, allowing, even at work, individual self expression.
In the U.S. balanced against all the self expression in the social media, such as Facebook, daily life is closed up, choked up and conceals more and more. As hinted, this tendency is inexorably connected to the refusal of everyday life in our repressive work regimes.
It’s interesting to note that in the sterling essay “Mormons in Space,” George Caffentzis and Silvia Federici argue that what capitalism in
America is striving for is the diametrical opposite of what we found in Cholon. The U.S. elite want a world that is plugged in, plugged into computer monitors but disconnected from everything human. “Celibacy,” they write, “AIDS, abstinence, the last steps in a long process of capital’s project to decrease the sensuous-sexual content of our lives and encounters with people, substituting the mental image for the physical touch.” That substitution can be easily accomplished if everyone is parked in front of TV, computer or Smart Phone. For the hidden goal of the elite is that “the home computer for the high-tech family [will be something that is] reproducing for you, in a purified-disembodied form, the relations/experiences of which you have been deprived in day-to-day life.” The world of Cholon could not be more divorced from capital’s inspired vision.
It’s not as if life in the United States has always been so placid and deadened or remains so everywhere. A book I didn’t much like, due to its leaden style, Lost City by Alan Ehrenhalt, describes Chicago in the 1950s, the good side of it. This side is that, even in Bronzeville, the deprived Black ghetto, as well as in the suburbs and ethnic sections, there was a strong sense of community. Everyone knew, spent time with and became, whether they cared for them or not, closely attached to their neighbors. There are multiple reasons for this, Ehrenhalt explains, but one of the most significant is primarily technological. It’s one we’ve seen in Vietnam. Chicago was hot in its long summer but no one had air conditioning so everyone hung out on their stoops, front porches, and patios, where they interacted: joking, talking, planning.
In other words, the sine qua non for the shaping of such world is the absence of things, the absence of luxuries. No better passage in modern letters provides a glimpse of this pared down (pared down to human size), brother’s and sister’s keeper world than that found in the depiction of the SF AA community in Alan Kaufman’s Drunken Angel.
There are different types of AA meetings, but the ones described here are for down and outers. There, living on food from soup kitchens, struggling to keep a roof over their heads, and all with the same mission to stay sober, everyone is in a situation where offering a hand, taking times to hear others out, and mutual aid are the currency of the day. But what I want to highlight here is not the cooperative spirit prevailing, but the ethos of reveling in the quirks of everyday street life, which is brought out in this passage where the narrator’s AA sponsor counsels him, as they walk along Haight Street, “Slow your feet, Little brother. Slow down. When we drink we are running from consciousness, from feelings, from the sight of the world. But now, [as sober people] we take it in. We savor it. We walk slow, observing our breath, letting our thoughts think themselves … Slow your feet and breathe the perfume of clean-and-sober air.”
To apply the relevance of this quote to what I have been talking about, I would say that in Cholon, all the structures are in place so that the average person wakes up in the morning and looks forward to a day in which, not only will chores get done and task be accomplished but life will be savored. As Kaufman shows, even in the U.S., in pockets of shared purpose where those in it have largely empty pockets, people can live with some of the élan and richness that is everyone’s birthright in Cholon.
Updated: 19 Dec. 2013 | Copyright © 2013, 2014 Jim Feast | key words: travel piece, travel writing, Jim Feast, social networking, lifestyles, Vietnam