Nobody in Vietnam reacts well when I tell them I've been living in Pham Ngu Lao for more than four months.
Tourists can't believe it, expats scoff and either subtly or overtly, local people tend to disapprove. Sooner or later I'll move into an apartment in District Whichever and I'm sure I'll love it there too"”but it's gonna be hard for me to bid my beloved Bui Vien farewell. When I leave, I will not miss the bad western music blaring from every direction, but I will miss calling the Vietnamese residents of Pham Ngu Lao my neighbors.
Many of the Vietnamese families of Pham Ngu Lao have lived in their houses for generations. Now their foyers serve as hotel lobbies, makeshift bars and restaurants, snack shops or art galleries. Not long ago they were something else. Patronize a business twice and you're considered a regular; go four times and get treated like family.
At dawn and dusk September 23 Park is full of young lovers, bohemians strumming guitars and skateboarding, families, schoolchildren and elderly Vietnamese, only a meager portion of whom find themselves directly connected to the tourist trade, outside the fact that their closest local park happens to be in the heart of the "tourist area."
Ms. Giau in front of her food cart where she has been serving locals and tourists breakfast for more than two decades.
Across the hem from my hotel live a distinguished middle-aged couple and their family. The patriarch is an exceptionally dapper silver-haired gentleman who radiates repose. He and his wife run a small shop, selling water, cigarettes and cell phones out of their house. Though he's already put a son through business school and is saving to do the same for his daughter, he sells his wares for a bare minimum of profit. We talk nightly about the state of the world and the state of the neighborhood he's lived in all his life. Like so many Vietnamese here, he accepts the pain and pleasure of development with equal magnanimity. Amidst the insane blare of Bui Vien, Mr. Kien can be found tending shop with his nose buried in a book on Buddhism, philosophy, physics or all three. On Gregorian New Year's, he pulled me aside and offered heartfelt prayers of good luck, health and prosperity to me and my girlfriend, and to our families in America, unlike any I've ever received from anyone in my life.
Across the street, in front of the new Mini-Stop convenience shop, hang Mr. Xieu and his xe om crew, Sang, Dung and Duong. They all drive smooth as a rhapsody"”not too fast, not too slow, avoiding every traffic jam and pothole possible. Xieu is a highly respected man amongst the community and often carries large sums of money for local people to and from banks and such. Like many of my friends here, I found him several years ago. I never take for granted the indelible service he provides for me when I need it. He and his team not only memorize the schedules of innumerable expats, waiting for them, coordinating to ensure they're picked up later, but they help tourists turned expats find jobs and apartments, warn us of things to look out for and greet us warmly umpteen times a day whether we need a ride or not.
I eat breakfast everyday at a small food cart run by a 50-something-year-old woman named Giau"”Shop Giau has been operating near the corner of Bui Vien and De Tham streets for more than two decades now. Her menu has only a few items dominated by fresh baguettes and the city's best omelets, loaded with onions. Though Giau speaks as little English as my girlfriend and I do Vietnamese (close to none), she treats us like we were her own children, reciprocating our customer loyalty with motherly doting. She now makes rice everyday for my girlfriend, who's allergic to gluten.
She's been frying up eggs at her tiny mobile food cart 364 days a year, for more than twenty years. This year she invited my girlfriend and I to accompany her to a pagoda for Tet on the lone day she takes off work. She's a saint, but each week I watch several tourists verbally assault her over VND5,000 and shoot her disgusted looks for her inability to understand their Germanic accent.
I bow my brow to the Giaus of Bui Vien, the mobile fruit shake ladies, the rail thin cyclo drivers, the men and women hawking incredible food, a million vendors eking a living as best they can assembling and dissembling entire restaurants and storefronts each day. Most of them already quasi-outlaws the government would just as soon eliminate. But they represent the thin red line standing between Vietnam and the soul-crushing strip malls of American suburbia.
The last time my girlfriend and I were here, she had to return to the US for health reasons. Vietnam probably had little to do with her ailments, but our local friends all but took responsibility anyway. It was the street food, the weather, the pollution, they said. I stayed on Bui Vien for three months without her and not a day went by without a dozen local people inquiring about how she was feeling, genuinely worried and concerned. They were not asking in general, but inquiring for specific changes since the last time they asked, the day before. It was enough to make me want to hold local press conferences every time we talked on Skype.
Cynicism doesn't get you far here, but if you're able or willing to simply behave like a human being, say please and thank you, you're treated like royalty. You don't even need to learn Vietnamese. Just learn to say "no problem" or how to order your tea and coffee in the local tongue, and people react as if you'd just recited an entire Ho Chi Minh speech in perfect Vietnamese. Try telling somebody passing out flyers that you already have one, in Vietnamese, and see the reaction you get.