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Good Morning Vietnam

28th November 2009

It’s a rare thing to get the opportunity to sit at leisure and watch a city yawn, stretch, and slowly unfold herself from sleep. If you’re up with the dawn, you’re usually part of it – too involved in waking up (or coming home!) to notice the world coming to life around you. But after our train arrived in Ho Chi Minh City at 5am – too early to get a room – we had no choice but to sit at the side of the road slurping iced coffee through a straw and be passive observers to the start of the day. At 5am, the first signs of activity have already begun. For all we know, they never really stopped at all. An old man shuffles past in what look like his pyjamas, clutching a single baguette in a plastic bag, whilst street vendors fire up their stalls, each one a chimney blowing out different inviting smells: deep fried pastry, sizzling chicken and spicy omelette mingle with the obligatory motorcycle fumes.

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By mid afternoon, the early mornings have clearly taken their toll on some people…

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Ho Chi Minh City is supposed to be the place for insomniacs, in vast contrast to what we’ve seen elsewhere in Vietnam. By 6pm the sun has gone down, and many rural areas without electricity are plunged into darkness, so people rise with the lark to get a full day’s work done – even in Hanoi, things seems to start to slow down around 10pm. By contrast, the main backpacker area in Ho Chi Minh City has a thriving bar scene. However, HCMC didn’t capture my imagination like Hanoi did. Perhaps we didn’t stay long enough to find it, but it doesn’t seem to have the charm and character of Hanoi. What it does have, though, is interesting characters – and one of these characters will be my strongest memory from the city.

Our new friend for the next two nights was 32 year old Hung. He grew up in Hue in a very poor family – they grew rice but often only managed to feed themselves with what they grew rather than make any money from it. Hung came to HCMC aged 15 to seek his fortune. Although he had spent a few months living with five other people in a studio apartment, he’s now homeless and sleeps on his friend’s cyclo outside a bar. He earns money from anything he can – he doesn’t have a moto, a food stall, or anything to sell, so instead he does what so many people here have to do, which is act as a go-between. He’s learnt good English from living in the streets of the main tourist area for well over a decade, so by striking up conversations with tourists and bringing them to a certain restaurant or moto taxi driver, the owner will give him enough to maybe buy a beer or something to eat. He’s lost his identity card, which he needs to get a more formal job, and to apply for a new one he’d have to return to his home town – something he can’t afford to do. For the same reason he hasn’t seen his family for around seven years. He told us all this without complaining, asking for money or even sympathy – he was just telling us about his life.

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This isn’t meant to be a sob story, however. A fantastic character, he was full of tales about everything and relentlessly upbeat. He’s built up a life for himself on his part of the street, and everyone seems to know him. He seems like one of life’s survivors, not about to let his situation get the better of him. As well as a great pleasure to spend two evenings with such a great character, it was a stark reminder not to get too over zealous when haggling, nor to get irritated by people constantly trying to attach themselves to you when you’re looking for a hotel or a bar. The small payback they get may well be enough to feed them for the next 24 hours. I left wishing we’d done more than buy Hung a meal and a few beers, and hoping his upbeat personality somehow gets him a better bed than a cyclo sometime soon.

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