I wake up at about five-thirty this morning because the neighbor is watering her orchids and pumping up the Cai Luong
(Vietnamese opera. If, in an attempt to provide yourself with atmosphere, you click the link and try to listen while you read this post, your concentration will go for shit and you may actually try to pull your own teeth out).
This used to put me into a flaming rage when I first got here, but not anymore. You just resign yourself to living in a world of cacophony and thank your stars for every day someone doesn't die on your street.
Because when someone dies, a cranky band comes and plays Vietnamese funeral music for three days straight - 24 hours a day - while everyone wears white paper clothes and drinks home brew. I once woke up at three in the morning and realized I was listening to a very strange interpretation of the theme from "Exodus".
But no one has died today. It's just my neighbor and her beloved phalaenopsis. In the evening, when I stand out on my balcony smoking, she sits on her bed, under an acid fluorescent light, counting money. It's a lot of money. I don't think it's new money every day. I think she just counts it over and over again, like blessings.
It's nice and cool at 5:30 am. I get up and wander around my own garden, feeling the fruits on my mango tree to see if its going to do the generous thing and give me one for breakfast. No luck. For a while I sit on my front steps and watch my cat do insane leaps in his mad mission to catch birds on the wing. I've done my best to try and talk him out of it, but there's no arguing with nature. Finally he nabs one and, from beyond my gate, I hear someone clapping. It's the garbage lady.
Nhan, the garbage gal, wheels her bright orange dumpster around the streets every morning of the week. She's about fifty. I only know this because I used to call her 'Bac' (aunty) until she told me to call her 'Chi' (older sister). So she's somewhere within about ten years of my age. You'd never know it; she looks about seventy. She's had a damn hard life. Her husband died in a motorcycle accident twelve years ago, and her only son has been diagnosed with TB, which is expensive to treat. I've asked her how she likes her job. She says it's entirely dependent on the quality of the garbage. Bottles, cans, plastic stuff, old clothes and paper make her very happy. Vegetable matter that can be separated is good, too - she can sell that for pig feed. Disposable baby diapers piss her off because there's just no way to recycle them into anything saleable.
I offer to buy her coffee at the corner, but she says she doesn't have time today. Her parents-in-law are coming in from the countryside and are expecting her hospitality. I ask her if she still has to be so nice to them, since their son's been dead so long. She shrugs and says her mother-in-law is a real bitch, but her father-in law's a nice old man. She does it for him.
Down at the corner of my street, the coffee lady, Thanh, is already doing brisk business. By six o' clock, all the taxi-drivers in the neighborhood are sitting around smoking, chugging iced-coffee and telling each other ribald jokes. The first time I turned up they all went quiet and got very polite, but I've ceased to be a novelty, and now they just offer me cigarettes. This pisses Thanh off, because I buy my smokes from her.
"Do you work today?" Thank asks.
"No. I'm going to the market. I need to buy some vegetables and fruit."
"Wait till eight, and I'll come with you. The market vendors are shits, they'll rip you off because you're a foreigner."
I laugh. I've been here so long; she knows they don't try it on anymore. But she likes to come with me and play the protector, feeling the fruit, looking scornfully at the lettuce, trying to bargain it down to a better price. Sometimes, if I buy bananas, we'll split a hand, because you can't buy a couple. You can only purchase them in huge hands of ten or fifteen. I can never eat them all.
When the bulk of the taxi drivers have left, it's nice and peaceful for a while until Binh comes up the street on his magic surfboard. Binh's legs got blown off by a mine in the DMZ. He gets around on a small wooden wheeled contraption with a couple of wood blocks strapped to his hands. He drags himself up the street this way. He's got two jobs: he shines shoes and he sings. Today he's making his way towards us singing something vaguely familiar through his crappy megaphone. By the time he has pulled alongside, I've identified it as "Hotel California".
It embarrasses me when he sings songs in English. I know he does it as a kindness to me, but he doesn't earn the bucks that way.
Binh is why my shoes always look so good. I pay him to polish them whenever he comes around. We have coffee and a chat, and he works. He always has the same questions for me: what's Canada like? Is it cold? Is it rich? Am I married? How many children? He already knows the answers. It's just a politeness.
Today he has new questions. He was down in the backpacker area, called Pham Ngu Lao, and polished a pair of strange boots. He describes them to me and I tell him they were Doc Martins - a very famous, special kind of boot made in England.
"Not so special." He tosses his head and grimmaces. "Once those soles go, they can't be fixed. What's so special about that?"
"Did you polish them?"
"Sure. I like a new experience."
"I hope you charged them double. Those boots are huge."
"I always charge foreigners double. They've got bigger feet." Then he gets serious and looks me in the eye. "Not you, of course. You've got Vietnamese feet, and you buy me coffee."
I want to ask him if he misses his feet. I wonder if there ever comes a time when a person who has had their legs blown off stops missing them. But the price of a shoeshine and a coffee doesn't buy that kind of intimacy, so I don't ask that.
"How's your wife?"
"Which one?" He smirked and winked. "The big one or the little one?"
In Vietnam, a mistress is called a vo nho (a little wife).
I know his wife is pregnant with their second child. "The big one, you goat!"
"She's fine. Her belly's getting like a watermelon. I think it's going to be a boy. I don't have a little wife, really," he says, "but I'm looking." He wiggles his eyebrows. Thanh slaps his dusty head playfully.
Binh always flirts with me. I like it. I often look at his handsome face and wonder what his reaction would be if I took him up on the offer. What would it be like to fuck a man with no legs? I think I'd have to do the thrusting.
On our way to the market, Thanh and I do a little bootleg DVD shopping. There is no way to buy legal copies of anything here, and the picture and sound quality sometimes sucks, but you can't complain at a dollar a disk. Thanh's very fond of American romantic comedies as long as the subtitles make sense. Sometimes they don't because the bootlegger has used subtitles from a completely different movie.
The market's jumping. Getting there before ten is a good idea - lots of everything and fresh - and the heat hasn't yet ripened the stink in the meat section. I buy most of what I want and find a nice papaya. Thanh's raring to bargain for it, so I let her. It's about face. I can't deny her her excuse for coming with me. It 's huge and still a little green.
We walk back to my house and I split the papaya with her. I make her laugh, explaining that the word for papaya in Vietnamese, 'du-du', means 'shit' in English. Before she leaves, she eyes my mango tree like an expert.
"They'll be ready in a week."
"We should have a party then."
She smiles. "Don't invite Binh. Mangos are hot. Too much chi energy and who knows what could happen."
"Just women, then."
Thanh giggled. "Just women, and we'll tell dirty stories."
Causes Remittance Girl Supports
Coalition Against the Trafficking of Women The Pleasure Project: A sex-positive organization working in the HIV prevention field.