Saigon Side Streets
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
His body is in the north, but his name is the south. Ho Chi Minh City, known as HCMC throughout Vietnam, is a city which has been named in honor of communism. Ironically, the city has become a testament to the power of capitalism with its skyscrapers and foreign investors. Investors, incidentally, are still forced to jump through communist hoops by starting in Hanoi before getting down to business in the south. Despite this economic cold war, HCMC doesn't feel like a city of business. Between the skyscrapers, down the side alleys, is where you find the place the locals are still calling Saigon.
The streets of HCMC are wide roads lined with businesses. They are as loud and busy as any big city, though considerably more friendly than in Hanoi. But just a dash of curiosity, or a fortunate wrong turn, will lead into the quiet, sun-dappled side streets of Saigon. An out-and-out labyrinth of small lanes, they lead an interconnected, winding trail throughout all of the major districts of the city. It is here that the locals lead their lives. Beyond each doorway is someone's home. A wider alley affords space for a food stall, a blind corner turns onto a tiny shop crammed into a corner, any sunny spot has been packed with drying laundry. Every bit of space is utilized, making for adventurous wandering within this hidden world of Saigon.
It was within these twisting side-streets that we found Mrs. Loan. In one of our interminable searches for the perfect place to stay we took our hundredth turn onto an alley that was choked with what seemed to be every street vendor in the neighborhood. The street vendors are either stationary at a stall which they unpack in the morning to serve their particular version of traditional Vietnamese dishes and re-pack to take home at night or they carry their goods with them throughout the city in large, flat baskets suspended from a long rod balancing on one shoulder. These “shoulder” vendors had abandoned their baskets against the walls and were crouched in groups, hungrily eating bowl after bowl of a thick porridge mixed with cooked meat. Working amid the people being served the food were a bustle of people making gigantic portions of food in pots the size of small cars. We watched the rotation of a couple hundred vendors pass in and out of the alley in about an hour.
When the rush had ended we hung around. It didn't take long for us to meet Loan. She wore a permanent smile and carried with her the light of what it means to struggle and succeed. She welcomed us without hesitation and saw us settled in the chairs of an impromptu café before she dashed off to attend to some other business. Every time she left and returned we found out more about her life here in this tiny side-street in Saigon.
Her family was all living in the house above the café we were sitting at; a clan of 28 people occupied three stories of a building that used to be only one floor but was expanded in 1998. Loan never stopped smiling while she told us, “Really we come from the ground, we have nothing.” Her story unfolded the past into the present through generations of her family and their journey from China to Hanoi, Vietnam. After her father and grandfather died within one year of each other, Loan started cleaning houses at the age of 14 then worked for twelve years in a clothing factory to help support a large family with only an ailing mother to care for seven children. Her own life so thoroughly acquainted her with struggle that after her fortunes changed and she met and married her true love, she wanted nothing more than to help care for others. A faithful Buddhist, Loan told us that, “The Buddha give to me, so I take care of everyone.” Taking care of everyone began five years ago when she started what we had never guessed we'd find down a little side alley in Saigon: A food drive.
Three days later the lobby of Loan's guesthouse fills with bags of food. They are stacked against every wall and she tells us that they contain the essentials: sugar, salt, noodles, aji-no-moto (a Japanese noodle seasoning) and rice. She will hand out 350 of these bags of food. The distribution corresponds to a traditional Buddhist holiday coinciding with the full moon and takes place once a year. Loan sits with us again and reflects on the power of life. “Nobody wanna die. Even when you're poor, you wanna live.” This interminable hope is shining in her face as she speaks and long after we've left behind the side-streets of Saigon, we continue to talk about Loan and the generosity and life we found in her corner of this city that is much more about the people down its side alleys than the man for which the city is named.