Boiled corn pot of chị Bé

Boiled corn pot of

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Having left Hanoi in the 2000s, chị Bé recalled those first old days when she moved to Sai Gon. “On those days, my husband and I came to Saigon with no money in hopes of surviving. The journey on the bus from the North to the South was such a long journey. I still remember a night vividly when we crossed the Hai Van Pass, one of the most dangerous mountainous areas in Vietnam. High pass, craggy mountain, shaking bus, and clouds all around, all of that made us both felt lost and afraid of the future ahead. Arriving in Saigon, my husband and I rented a motel room before moving to District 7, where we still live now.”

Moving here, her husband works as a construction worker, and Chị Bé sells sticky corn at Cho Lon. She said that “My income is not stable, but depends much on luck since not every day I have customers. When it rains, I make a temporary shelter. But, in those days, fewer people stop on the street to buy sticky corn. In this market, there are not many people selling sticky corn like me. I am still working as a street vendor because I do not know which other job is more suitable for me than selling sticky corn. This job is a means to support my family. I had two little children to take care of at home. Therefore the days that I do not go to work are the days they will not have enough food to eat. In my homeland, the cost of living is cheaper, but there is no boarding school.

On the contrary, there are many boarding schools here, but things are more expensive. I have no choice. I have to let my children study at boarding school because if they do not, I can not go to work.”

When it comes to her homeland, chị Bé feels melancholic. “In the North, I have my relatives. Here, I just have my parents-in-law. Unfortunately, they passed away a long time ago. I have only returned home a few times in a decade because it costs a lot of money. I really want to visit my home, but I cannot. I got used to the pace of life here.”

Saigon became her home and her relatives.

The Southwest “loves” Saigon

The Southwest Saigon

Moving to Saigon was not his choice. Uncle Minh left his home for decades to survive in this bustling city. He stuck his work – a motorcycle taxi driver that believed was his destiny. “I took the customers wherever they wanted. However, the transportation industry is gradually losing ground as ride-hailing technology emerges, such as Grab, GoViet, Be, and so on, I must adapt to maintain my family income by joining GoViet. A traditional taxi driver does not have to pay the tax, so the profits are higher; however, the clientele is smaller. Lately, when I work for GoViet, it is the exact opposite. However, the earnings are somewhat the same.

Uncle Minh said, “Working as a motor driver is too exhausting, but I still have to tackle all the problems that arise. I start my day from 4 to 22 o’clock. The rainy day is the same as a sunny day. Because I’m so busy working, I could not have lunch with my family. When I arrive home after work, my family is going to bed. I’m so fed up with eating alone. Working time does not allow me to do what I like, nor does it allow me to spend time with my family.” I’m curious why he does not change his job. He confessed to me that he has been working as a motor driver for a long time, so if he now leaves his career, he does not know what work he can do.

“Although this work is backbreaking, I still love it. It provides a means to sustain a family of six. The life of the entire family depends on the old motorbike. With it, I can earn up to 300,000 – 400,000 VND a day.” He said, “Many people told me that working as a motor driver is a shame, but I do not think so. Making a living to take care of my family deserves to be respected.”

I am curious to know why Uncle Minh does not return to his homeland for work. He said: “In my homeland, I have my brothers and sisters, and things are cheaper.  I like to eat delicious fresh food at home. However, I know that there are fewer opportunities to earn a living in a rural area. I will be drunk for days with my neighbors. I still have my family to take care of, so I can’t be here and there. “

Mr. Mouse in Saigon

in Saigon

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We went to meet a traditional toymaker amid Saigon. Modernization has robbed me of the joy in playing traditional toys, so I am very excited to explore such wonders in the stall of cụ Hanh – a street vendor who was called “Mr. Mouse.”

When we got to talk to him, we realized that he did not merely sell toys for a living, but also he wanted to preserve childhood for many children. For this reason, he diligently sits on the sidewalk, selling handmade toys for the kids quick to lose interests. “Kids today prefer electronic toys and video games. But as long as there are still customers, I will still be doing this. There are still many children coming here to play with me every day.”

30 years selling handmade toys are 30 years preserving the childhood of many Saigonese generations. It happens naturally: “In 1990, my health deteriorated, so I couldn’t work as a farmer anymore.  I returned to Sai Gon afterward, helping my wife sell che ngo (a Vietnamese delicacy) to support the family. Ever since I practically roamed Sai Gon to sell balloons due to a lack of capital. At that time, a balloon is sold at 1 – 2 dong. Then, I thought, selling balloons did not do justice to my educational background. So I quitted.” 

After that, he also learned to make, innovate, and adjust traditional toys to make them unique. Eventually, those toys are still an attraction for decades up to now.

Apart from toy-making, Uncle Hanh also composes poems, recites history, and is even fluent in English and French despite no longer working as a deskman or interpreter. “The churches have many foreign visitors. Whenever they come, they visit my stall. I always introduce them to the Vietnamese traditional toy-making sector that I am upholding now. They are always fascinated and repurchased as souvenirs home.” 

The taste of Sai Gon is well-preserved by the people dutifully maintaining traditional values. Uncle Hanh is definitely one of them. 

Photographer: Cong Tuan

Earning a living, dreaming for studying

Earning a living, for studying

“Life is painfully harsh in the way it traps people who want to fly high inescapably on the ground…”  (Nam Cao, 1956)

These are the words of Thu in “Song Mon” nearly a century ago, yet it can still be seen resembled in the wretched lives of many in Sai Gon. Trong, a passer-by with whom we meet, carries one of such destinies.

Trong dropped out of school when he had finished 7th grade because his family could not afford the expenses of a public school. 700,000 – 800,000 VND monthly schooling was a huge burden for his mother, who barely saved enough money to pay tuition. The pressure eventually forced Trong to leave school and set his foot in the society, helping his family to earn a living amidst the center of Saigon at a very young age. I asked him: “If someone gives you the option to continue in school, would you take advantage of this opportunity?” Trong looked at me hesitantly, and the moment he seemed to start speaking, his grandmother turned to me: “He will probably not be going back to school, sweetie. He doesn’t want it, he can’t do it.” Trong smiled and told me about his fears at school.

He was afraid of school because his family does not have the expensive money. He was scared of going to school because no one befriended him. He feared his friends will pull him into the whirl of social issues and become a threat to society. He feared that a day that he would stay at school would mean a day of starvation for his brother. He feared that despite the money spent at school, he could do nothing to earn it back. At least, at home, he can hang around his mother to sell her teas or help his grandmother with her “hu tiu.” His joy of going to school all those years had been the joy of passing classes. Leading such a miserable life at school, the proudest of him and his grandmother had been the ability to read and speak.

“I just want a job, sister. Whatever it is, I just need the money to take care of my family.” Stepping into social life at the age of 15 could not get him a job that easily. Dropping out in the middle of the road, unemployed, where will his life settle down? His grandmother told me that now he wants nothing more than to be a good man. “He has to be a good person, behave well, and have a clean life, no matter how hard life is, honey. No smoking, no drugs are all that I want in him. He is a good boy, he listens to me well. But life sucks, it does not allow him to have fun.”

Living in life, the most respectable wish of his grandmother has been to be the right person …

Yet, I could not figure out what his true passion is since he did not confess… Is it to continue in school? I don’t know. The only thing I know is there were times he hesitated; is it his burdens that make him think so much?

Human of Saigon

Human of

On a casual occasion, I met Dì Hạnh’s papaya stall at Pham The Hien Market (District 8). The small booth located near the gate has nothing but papaya and mixed ice that continuously welcomes many guests. I went there when the papaya was about to end, there were only a few guests left, and she was about to go home.

I only sell from 6 in the morning until noon, sweetie. Now I am not as difficult as I was. My two daughters are also successful, so I continue to sell papaya for charity and not to make a living.” She also had a lot of fun and memorable here. Therefore, she continues to sell papaya. “My guests are all familiar customers. Some people, who have been eating here for over ten years, usually still came here to eat my papaya, even though their current homes are far from here. God blessed that people remember that I sold papayas here. “

The papaya stall of Dì Hạnh is not a luxury one, but it is a place to go. Every time there is a guest, she always washes her hands carefully before taking the papaya fruit or receiving money. “Only when I do my business with prestige, people will trust me and support me for a long time. That’s why I can sell papaya here for almost fifty years and raise my two daughters. “

My dish was over at the same time she closed the stall. The shadow of their backs disappeared. Still, I always remember her story – the familiar story of not only one, but many people of Saigon who do their businesses with their honesty and sympathy for years.

I wonder if I can meet someone like Dì Hạnh in another neighborhood or district. However, with a hunch, I know that there are still many people like her waiting for me to come and explore Saigon.

Viewing the bright moon

Viewing the bright

At dusk, we rested at the diner of Dì Chín, which is located on the side of Tan My Market. The market was over, the buyers were sparse. Dì Chín sat down to pick up the vegetables. We sat down at the only dining table in the diner, waiting for her to bring up two bowls of Pho. The smell was very appealing.

Dì Chín is old, but still very lucid. She has a kind face and always laughs. She told us the stories of her past days, not answering our questions, but enthusiastically remembering and telling us about her impoverished childhood. She was not originally from Saigon, but from Tien Giang. She just moved to Saigon for studying, and then accidentally lived in this place for half of her lifetime. At first, seeing how she was cooking Pho, we thought she was an employee who was used to this manual work. Surprisingly, before sticking to Tan My Market, she was a teacher of the college of Education: “I had been a teacher. All my students have become teachers. In the afternoon, after a working day, they came here to support me. They miss me, but I can not remember their names. It has been five years since I retired, I think I gradually forget the smell of chalk. “

After a while, she told us about her family: “Although my father is a farmer, his thoughts were very progressive. His eight children, three sons, and five girls, all went to school. He let us go to school during the day and helped with the farm work at night. We were forced to work in the summer to make money to go to school. After that, my three brothers were all successful, and four sisters and I were all teachers. In the entire village, only my family has been so successful. ” We asked her the reason why she did not return to her hometown. It was a pity. She could not go back home even though she missed it a lot. She had only one daughter, who sells rolls next to her diner. If she went, there would be no one to take over the business of her daughter and her two granddaughters …

Therefore, Dì Chín decided to stay permanently in Saigon. Every day, she gets up early in the morning to go to the market, buys things to get ready to sell in the afternoon. She is always there until midnight. “There is no moon in the city, but it is not necessary to see the moon to miss your hometown, right?”

Chú Tư’s life

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 “As long as I live, my family will still be able to survive.” 

Uncle Tu hung up his microphone when we came to his stall beside an old motorbike, a basket containing various types of candies, and a poster with heart-broken words. He is spry for a man in his 70s overcoming many hardships yet still dedicated to his work. When asked about his living condition, he could not help but choke: “Those who suffer, suffer for life. My family has been abjectly poor. My grandparents passed away when I was just a child. My parents have knocked about here and there. I also suffer from the same fate.” I have been through thicks and thins since I was eight. He lives in a 10-meter square hut at Dau Moi Market. The land that his family resides in now belonged to his kind old landowner.

Glancing at his poster on the back of the 900.000 VND Wave, he sobbed uncontrollably. He said: “My sister is disabled, my wife is unable to work, my children also suffer from poverty. I also have a chronic headache, but I am used to it because I do not have any money to go to the hospital. Just a few days ago, I fainted in the middle of the street. Passers-by had to call an ambulance to hospitalize me. But when I found out the total fees, I just sneaked to home.” He said, “I can suffer alone. At least, my family members can have full meals.”

We tried to give him some gifts, but he put them into his bag right away. He probably wanted to save the snacks for the needier. He suddenly recalled a memory, “Once a customer generously gave me the changes, so I could buy my family a few fried cakes and some chicken. For the first time in my life, we had such a delicious meal together. I don’t take money for no reason, I just want people to support my business. Their giveaway of a fortune could not compete with a small sum of money buying my products, and I appreciate it. It drives me to tears sometimes, knowing there are still many kind-hearted people in the world.”

It is already late. We bid farewell to Uncle Tu. He picked up his microphone, continuing to sing at the intersection. He wanted to give his customers the best use of their money, because 10.000 VND for a sweet merely is unreasonable, and also he wanted to attract more customers to his stall. On the way home, his words lingered on our minds, “I only hope to live until Lunar New Year. As long as I live, my family will still be able to survive.”

Photographer: My Kha Ly

Nồi bắp nếp của chị Bé

Nồi bắp luộc của

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Rời mảnh đất Thủ đô thân thương từ cuối những năm 2000, chị Bé bùi ngùi nhớ lại những ngày đầu gian khó đặt chân đến Sài Gòn. “Ngày ấy, vợ chồng chị với hai bàn tay trắng vào đây lập nghiệp. Quãng đường đi ô tô từ Bắc qua Trung vào Nam ngày ấy là cả hành trình dài. Nghe người ta bảo vào Nam kiếm sống, chị cũng vậy thôi. Hồi đó, đêm phải băng qua đèo Hải Vân, đèo cao, núi hiểm trở, bánh xe rung lắc, nhìn xung quanh chỉ toàn là mây mù, vợ chồng chị sợ không còn có ngày mai nữa. Vào đến Sài Gòn, vợ chồng chị thuê tạm một cái nhà trọ ở rồi sau này chuyển nhà trọ qua khu Quận 7, sống đến nay cũng được chục năm rồi.”

Từ lúc vào đây, chồng chị đi phụ hồ giúp người ta. Còn chị, chị một mình đi bán bắp nếp ở Chợ Lớn. Chị nói “Cái nghề này may rủi, hôm bán được hôm không. Cực lắm em ạ. Nhiều khi trời mưa, cũng che tạm cái ô. Nhưng mà người ta không dừng lại mua mấy. Ở đây, cũng chẳng mấy người bán bắp nếp luộc như chị. Nhưng chị vẫn làm công việc này bởi chị cũng chẳng biết mình làm cái gì hợp hơn cái nghề bán bắp này nữa. Ở nhà chị còn hai con nhỏ phải nuôi dạy đàng hoàng, nếu chị không đi làm ngày nào thì chúng nó đói.” Chị nói chị cho cả hai đứa đi học bán trú hết. “Ở quê mình, tiền ăn, tiền sinh hoạt thì rẻ nhưng mà chúng nó không có học bán trú đến 6 7 giờ tối. Ở trong đây, cái gì cũng đắt, nhưng mà vẫn phải cho chúng nó học trường bán trú. Nếu không ở đó, thì bố mẹ không đi làm được.”        

Nhắc về mảnh đất quê hương, chị Bé ngậm ngùi. “Ở Bắc quê mình thì có anh em họ hàng. Vào đây thì có bố mẹ chồng chị, nhưng mà bố chồng chị thì mất lâu rồi. Ba bốn năm chị mới về một lần. Mỗi một lần về quê là cả đống tiền chứ có ít gì đâu em. Nhiều khi muốn về lắm nhưng cũng không về được. Nhưng ở đây lâu rồi, mãi cũng thành quen.”

Sài Gòn trở thành nhà của chị, trở thành người thân và trở thành nơi cho chị cái kế sinh nhai … 

Gánh đu đủ nửa đời người

Một người

Được dịp đi chợ xa nhà, tôi bắt gặp gánh đu đủ của dì Hạnh ở chợ Phạm Thế Hiển (Quận 8.) Gánh hàng nho nhỏ ở đầu cổng chợ, không có gì ngoài đu đủ và đá bào, mà khách đến vào ra liên tục. Tôi đến ngồi ăn khi đu đủ đã vơi đi gần hết, quán lúc này cũng thưa thớt dần,  dì Hạnh đang chuẩn bị dọn hàng ra về.

 

“Dì bán từ 6 giờ sáng đến trưa thôi con. Dì giờ cũng không có khó khăn như xưa nữa. Hai đứa con gái dì cũng đủ đầy. Bây giờ, gánh đu đủ này tiếp tục cũng để dì làm từ thiện, không còn nuôi ai nữa hết.” Dì không muốn chỉ quanh quẩn trong nhà, cuộc sống của dì đã gắn bó với chợ Phạm Thế Hiển hơn nửa đời người, nghỉ thì buồn, thì nhớ, nên dì lại bán. “Khách của dì toàn là khách ruột không hà. Có người ăn mười mấy năm rồi, có chuyển đi đâu mà về lại cũng ghé đây ăn dì. Quý lắm, mình bán mà người ta vẫn nhớ mình là trời phù hộ.”

 

Dì Hạnh bán rẻ, nhưng lúc nào cũng đặt chữ tâm lên đầu. Mỗi lần khách đến mua, dì đều rửa tay thật sạch rồi mới cầm trái đu đủ, nhận tiền xong cũng vậy. “Mình làm ăn phải uy tín, người ta mới tin tưởng mà ủng hộ dài lâu. Có vậy dì mới bán được gần năm chục năm, nuôi hai đứa con ăn no mặc ấm.” 

 

Chén đu đủ vừa hết cũng là lúc dì Hạnh dọn hàng ra về. Bóng lưng thập thững của dì khuất dần nhưng tôi thì vẫn luôn nhớ mãi câu chuyện của dì – câu chuyện không chỉ của một mà còn là của rất nhiều người Sài Gòn, vẫn luôn bán buôn thật thà, dễ mến, niềm nở hàng chục năm qua. Tôi tự hỏi không biết mình còn có thể gặp những người như dì Hạnh ở các phường, các quận hay không nhưng, bằng một linh cảm nào đó, tôi biết Sài Gòn vẫn còn đó những con người như vậy đang vẫy gọi tôi.

30 năm “vua Chuột” miệt mài gìn giữ văn hóa dân gian

30 năm miệt mài gìn giữ văn hóa dân gian

Được bạn bè giới thiệu, tôi tìm đến nhà thờ Đức Bà, mong được gặp “vua Chuột” – nghệ nhân làm đồ chơi dân gian giữa đất Sài Gòn. Dù lớn lên ở vùng quê, nhưng khi tôi sinh ra thì đồ chơi điện tử cũng bắt đầu thịnh hành. Do vậy mà tôi chưa có dịp được thử chơi những món đồ dân gian giống như con chuột, con rắn đủ sắc của cụ Hạnh bày biện bên vệ đường.

Mới lần đầu gặp mặt, tôi hơi xót xa khi thấy cụ ông có tuổi, lại còn mang bệnh nhưng vẫn phải vất vả bán buôn. Nhưng khi được tiếp xúc với cụ, tôi mới vỡ lẽ rằng cụ không bán vì mưu sinh mà là để giữ gìn tuổi thơ cho trẻ nhỏ. Do vậy mà ngày ngày, cụ vẫn ngồi trên vỉa hè, bán từng con rắn, con chuột cho lũ trẻ mà mỗi ngày một thưa dần. “Mấy đứa nhỏ bây giờ thích đồ chơi điện tử hơn, rồi thêm trò chơi trên mạng nữa… Nhưng chừng nào vẫn có người mua thì mình vẫn cứ bán… Vẫn còn nhiều đứa ngày nào cũng ra đây chơi với ông.” 

Cụ Hạnh gắn bó gần 30 năm với nghề làm đồ chơi dân gian, cũng là 30 năm nuôi giữ kỉ niệm đáng nhớ của thời thơ ấu biết bao thế hệ trẻ em Sài Gòn. Nghề đến với cụ như một cái duyên: ““Năm 1990, sức khỏe của ông dần yếu đi, không thể làm ruộng được nữa nên quyết định trở lại Sài Gòn, phụ vợ nấu chè ngô đi bán để nuôi con. Sau đó, ông rong ruổi khắp Sài Gòn để bán bóng bay vì không có vốn liếng gì. Thời đó một quả bóng bay bán với giá 1 – 2 đồng. Rồi ông lại nghĩ, mình là người có tri thức, đi lòng vòng bán bóng bay như thế vừa mất sức lại không phát huy được những gì đã được học. Thế là ông nghỉ bán”. Rồi ông học cách làm đồ chơi thủ công, xong lại tự mày mò, kiến tạo, thêm thắt nhiều điểm độc đáo, cứ thế mà trở thành một sản phẩm được trẻ con thời đó yêu thích, và thậm chí là đến tận bây giờ vẫn có sức hút như vậy.

Không chỉ giỏi làm đồ chơi, “vua Chuột” còn biết làm thơ, biết đọc sử, cụ còn am tường tiếng Anh và tiếng Pháp dù đã hơn chục năm không còn làm văn thư hay thông dịch viên nữa. “Nhà thờ có nhiều khách nước ngoài ghé thăm, người ta hay đến đây xem đồ chơi của ông. Gặp khách nào, ông cũng giới thiệu “Đây là đồ chơi truyền thống của người Việt.” Họ trầm trồ, thích thú chơi thử và mua về làm quà lưu niệm cho người thân và bạn bè.”

Nét đẹp Sài Gòn, văn hóa Sài Gòn vẫn tiếp tục được gìn giữ và lưu truyền bằng nhiều cách. Trong đó có con đường thổi tình yêu dân gian, yêu dân tộc qua đồ chơi của “vua Chuột” Sài Thành.

Ảnh: Công Tuấn