Vietnam Week: A Glimpse Of Local Life
Local life in Vietnam usually starts early.
Well before dawn, food stalls and restaurants begin preparing for the day ahead. Produce is delivered and chopped and the early morning air fills with the fragrance of soup stock simmering and the clatter of tables and chairs being set up on the footpath.
At the markets, business is brisk. The ladies of the household go early to get the freshest ingredients to cook for breakfast. They buy small portions of vegetables and meat – just enough for breakfast – because they will return to the market before lunch and before dinner. Old pre-refridgeration habits die hard.
The parks are filled with people exercising. There’s clots of people ambling around in a not-very-fast manner, groups of ladies doing jiggly aerobic moves as loud tinny music blares from a portable stereo and old men doing strange stretches on the park benches. Apart from a few rare joggers, hardly anyone breaks into a sweat.
As the heat of the sun strengthens, the footpath food stalls fill with people slurping noodles, sipping coffee or fueling up on a rice dish. Students, office workers, construction workers, truck drivers and families sit crammed together, elbows bumping as the waiters and waitresses zip around delivering the cooked-to-order food.
In the cities, the roads will become more crowded as the first of the day’s multiple peak hours approach. The ever-present roar of the traffic will increase, as will the frequency of the beeping. Trucks, cars, motorbikes and motorised carts all fight for space, expressing impatience at traffic jams by tooting and trying to go around, making the sidewalks as jammed up as the street. In the midst of the crazy mess, children wobble on bicycles and limbless lottery ticket sellers scoot along sitting on home-made skateboards.
Gradually the traffic begins to ease. Mid-morning is quite a tranquil time, with the majority of people at work or at school. But the lull doesn’t last long. As lunchtime approaches, people need to move again.
Some people go home for lunch. Some school children need to be collected. Some people go out for lunch. Even if you work in an office with its own canteen – which is quite common – often you’ll go out for lunch with your colleagues, sometimes to a place with an “office menu” – soup, rice, a meat dish, a vegetable dish, fruit and tea. Com tam places, where you can get a super-cheap plate of rice topped with all kinds of tasty treats, are also popular at lunchtime.
Most office workers take an hour for lunch, a proper break where the focus switches from work to food. For some, the break includes a nap. When I worked in an office, I often found men snoozing in quiet parts of the building. A hearty lunch and a nap is considered quite normal.
Some people manage to stretch their lunch break out to a couple of hours. It all depends on what your boss will let you get away with. If your boss likes a drink, lunch could include an extended drinking session.
During the heat of the afternoon, the cities get quite sleepy, especially in summer. Xe om drivers snooze on their motorbikes, feet propped up on the handle bars. The hardy women who sell food balanced on poles find a spot to rest in the shade. Waiters and waitresses lounge about in their empty restaurants.
But once school is over for the day, the city comes back to life, with children in uniforms creating colour and noise. Most will get a quick snack before being whisked off to an after-school class or home for hours of homework.
The school pickup also marks the beginning of the evening rush hour. The roads are full of people leaving work.
But leaving work doesn’t mean the day is over. In Vietnam, the nights are for drinking, eating, meeting friends, taking English classes, singing and di choi (relaxing).
Office girls may meet their friends for ice cream. Businessmen meet for drinks, raucous toasts and snack food to soak up the alcohol. Sporty types head out to play tennis or soccer under lights. The career up-and-comers zip off to English classes and couples zoom around the city, enjoying the only privacy they get in a crowded country where extended families sleep several to a room.
The parks are busy again as the heat of the day recedes. Young children ride tiny tricycles between the groups of not-so-fast-walkers, which are out again in force. Families play badminton and groups of young men kick a woven bamboo ball or a feathered hackysack around. Helium balloon and snack food vendors lurk on the edges. Lottery sellers drift through the crowd, hoping for a sale.
As the evening turns into night, the exercisers thin out and the courting couples take up residence in the park, using the cover of darkness to steal some more privacy… and a few cuddles and sneaky kisses.
In the cities, at around 9pm, traffic increases again as English classes finish. Another wave of people hit the food stalls, bars and restaurants. The been-there-for-hours drinkers will adjourn home, or to another bar or a club.
All over Vietnam, sidewalk joints are jumping, with waiters scurrying, diners dining, drinkers laughing and telling tall tales, small children selling packs of tissues and flowers, blind singers wailing into microphones and old ladies selling enormous rice crackers, quail eggs, green mango and lottery tickets. Food vendors park carts beside the restaurants, offering steamed corn, embryo eggs, seafood and dried squid.
Nights in Vietnam are noisy, very noisy, and lots of fun. Suddenly a small boy in dirty satin pyjamas cuts through the noise with a shout of “HAI” and a gush of gasoline-smelling flame shoots from his mouth.
The toasting, talking and laughing continues, sometimes until the roosters start to crow and the market stalls begin getting ready for the day ahead.
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