Octogenarian Tran Y examines the palm of Nguyen Thanh Ha at a street-side eatery that is also a popular beer parlor in Ho Chi Minh City. Y works from 7 p.m. to 1 or 2 a.m. every day of the week.
The vendors never stop coming.
Shoe-shine boys, women of all ages with a round shallow wicker basket filled with small eats hard boiled quail eggs, boiled, unshelled peanuts, semi-ripe mangoes, green lotus seeds and a big plastic bag of large round roasted rice crackers, women or men holding a big wooden box displaying cigarette and cigar packages, women or men on foot or on bicycles with a basket of fruits in season, and yes, unending waves of lottery ticket vendors who are anywhere between 80 plus years old to 10-12 years old, with many suffering one or more physical handicaps.
The endless flow of petty merchants is a constant at most, if not all popular street-side beer bar-cum-restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City. Fairly recent value-added additions to the vendors include wandering minstrels armed with a guitar and a repertoire of popular songs who will sit at your table, share your beer, and entertain you.
When an old man walked into this crowd wearing a miner's headlamp at around 8:30 p.m. at the Sai Gon Xua Va Nay (Sai Gon then and now) on Nguyen Trung Truc Street in District 1, I was puzzled that he had no lottery tickets in hand. By then, we had bought at least six mangoes, a bag of rambutans, a rice cracker, more than half-a-dozen lottery tickets (from at least six vendors) and declined several offers of chewing gum and cigarettes. When the old man walked into our midst, I reached automatically for my wallet to buy whatever it is he was selling, virtually certain that at that age, in his seventies or so, it had to be lottery tickets.
It turns out that Tran Y was selling yet another service, fortune telling, based on reading faces and palms. Apart from the headlamp and a pair of spectacles of medium-thickness, he has a magnifying glass as his main accessory. And it also turns out he has been doing this for the last 35 years or so. Intrigued by the fact that an octogenarian (he said he was 86, though he looked about a decade younger) spent nearly seven hours walking the streets (7 p.m. to 1 or 2 a.m.) everyday, I asked if I could have a longer conversation with him, when he was not so busy at work.
"Come home in the morning," he said, giving an address in District 6. He lives in an alley off Ba Hom Street, lined by narrow houses fused together in a sometimes orderly and sometimes haphazard fashion.
"It was around April 30, 1975," he said, on being asked when he'd started out on this career. The realization that he had a "God given" gift had prompted him to give up his family's traditional vocation, carpentry. Over the years, he built on his fortune-telling skills through many books, some of which were given by clients impressed with his accuracy, Y said. He showed us a book titled "Voice of the hand," gifted by a Lt. Colonel in appreciation. He has many more books, but cannot read much these days as he tends to fall asleep, Y said. The books confirmed what he knew and he learnt things he did not know earlier, he added.
Other patrons have also helped. One of them paid for cataract surgeries for both eyes and others have given him gifts of rice, milk and sugar, he said.
His fortune-telling philosophy? "Just tell the truth, good or bad." Y does not make drastic predictions, though. Homilies are more his style "It is good for you to get married this year"¦ A child born to you when you are 41 will be good for both of you"¦ Your wife should be careful. You can be a womanizer"¦ You are a truthful, straightforward man, but you will marry twice."
Y moved to Saigon two or three years before the end of the Vietnam War to "escape the war" he said. He left behind a wife and two children when he did so. In Saigon, he married again and had two children with his second wife who died around two decades ago. He lives with his son now. His daughter, married with kids of her own, comes home everyday to cook for him.
His earnings from fortune telling have supported the family for several decades now, and he "continues to work because he can." As he talks, Y's face alternates between a toothless, disarming smile and serious, sad looks.
The pension for the elderly that he gets is just VND240,000 a month, so the money he earns helps, especially since he aims to put his son through a vocational school. Now, though, he is "getting tired." His regular xe om (motorbike taxi) driver who takes him around every night, confirms that Y once fainted on the street and had to be brought back. Sometimes, he gets feverish.
However, on days he feels well, they set out in the morning and do the rounds of markets, offering vendors the fortune-telling service.
On a good night, he gets about 10 customers. He says he does not ask for a specific fee but accepts what is given, which is anywhere between VND20,000 to VND100,000. Occasionally, he provides free readings for waitresses and lottery sellers.
What about himself? His own life? Did he read his own palm?
He did, and accepts his fate. "I have never felt satisfied or happy about myself, because I did not do a good job of taking care of my family. My house has been sloppily constructed and leaks when it rains." In fact, his one hope for the future is that he earns the money to repair his house.
What about saving graces? "No one has criticized me for making wrong predictions. Some fortune tellers have been chased away, but it has never happened to me." As an afterthought, he adds with a faraway look, "Maybe it is because I am too poor and too old." But there have been others who have run into him after the first time, and given him more money, Y says.
It is as we are about to take leave that the conversation takes a more interesting turn. I casually ask him what were the most frequently asked questions by his beer imbibing customers. They are mostly related to work and family, he says. "Women want to know whether their husbands are pursuing other women."
And does he tell them the truth?
"Only if the other relationship is serious. Some flirtations, I don't say." Then Y assumes a more professorial look. In the serious cases, "I counsel clients on ways to avoid problems. For instance, if the mistress is pregnant, the solution will be different. If she is not, I will ask the husband to return to his wife and children.
"I don't work just for money, but for the good of others."