Sunday afternoon I spent four hours at a small coffee shop along the river just north of District 1. Customers arrive (all men) one at a time and each places a pack of cigarettes on the small plastic table, orders an iced coffee and sits quietly while watching the scooters drive by. At one point a 30-something Vietnamese fellow took a seat near me while busily talking on his cell phone. 20 minutes later his friend showed up with a brand new watch and the two discussed and compared their watches. Eventually the cafe’s owner, a tattooed man in his early 40’s, took up a small plastic chair next to them and joined the watch discussion. The mid-day road-side coffee shops are only populated by men and this started to make sense after a friend told us the unemployment rate for men is high in Saigon.
Vietnamese of all ages, especially the older ones, are content to sit and watch, existentially contemplating their life, the universe and everything. Or maybe they’re just spacing out, who knows. Regardless it’s a refreshing contrast to the West where the almighty productivity takes precedence. The patience of Vietnamese is truly stunning. Every morning on the highway below our apartment window a small lady sits on the edge of the highway selling gasoline from small glass bottles. I’ve never seen a customer, however every 10 minutes or so either a scooter stops for directions or she shifts her plastic stool to remain under the shadow of the overhead billboard. She represents a stereotypical Vietnamese lady for me:
- Her clothes: sandals, dark slacks with a bright pink jacket covering her arms, the typical Vietnamese conical hat (nón lá).
- Her relaxed and patient demeanor: watching the traffic go by without, it seems from my far vantage, too many concerns or worries.
- Entrepreneurial spirit: working in the informal sector and creatively making ends meet.
Like this woman, many Vietnamese around the city are never 100% working and never 100% relaxing. Their life exists in an indeterminate state between the two. The cafe, for instance, is run by a family. At one point the lady that served me coffee left on her scooter and returned an hour later with a fresh haircut. Her husband spends the time between serving customers smoking and watching the scenery in deep thought. Families running restaurants are to be found between mealtimes napping in hammocks or playing cards.
After the coffee shop I took a motorbike 12 km straight across nighttime Saigon. Twice my 50-something driver asked for directions and we filled up at a gas station. The Saigon night streets vibrated with light and energy with every inch of real estate taken up by scooters, cars, or just people standing around smoking and chatting (of course this includes the sidewalks). With this many scooters in traffic it’s not uncommon to actually touch other scooters or cars. In a roundabout another driver’s handlebar hit my driver’s arm at low speed and I had to tuck my knees in to avoid him. Finally, after 50 minutes on the back of the scooter, I arrived home with a sore butt.
An analogy occurred to me while riding the bike home: Perhaps you have played the trust game? You fall backwards with your eyes closed and depend on your friend to catch you before you hit the floor, thereby cementing your trust. Driving a scooter in Saigon is like playing the trust game. However, instead of a friend catching you it’s a stranger, and instead of the floor it’s a trip to the ER, and you play it about one thousand times every ride.