To me, this is the essence of the old Vietnam.

More about that later. Few Westerners and no tourists ever come to this neighborhood. The only exceptions are people who took the wrong bus, joined the wrong tourist group, or somehow took the wrong taxi from the airport.

They immediately leave after discovering their mistake. Too bad, they’re missing a community experience which is disappearing from many cities including in Vietnam.

The essence of community

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Photo: An Thanh Dat

What makes this place special? People here make an effort to get to know each other, including newcomers. They watch out for each other. They help one another when in need. They respect one another. Most of all they are happy, even though many have very little.

Let me introduce you to the locals.

Campfire on the street: locksmith family

Every day I pass the locksmith family strategically located on the sidewalk at the intersection of two streets, where they spend their days. They have a good business, but it makes me wonder why so many people in Vietnam have locks and keys in need of repair or replacement.

Thu, the informal leader on the corner, keeps things in order. She mans the key machinery when her husband takes a nap or leaves to repair a lock. She minds the fruit vendor and sticky rice vendor stands when they go to lunch. She roasts chicken skewers with one hand and directs traffic with the other.

She is always smiling which draws people to her.

During winter, Thu starts a small wood fire, where her husband and the venders gather on small plastic chairs seeking warmth. When I pass by they call me over to share a seat. Everyone laughs and gossips, passing the time.

Gaggle at the gym

Almost every day, I go to the gym, in the mall at the edge of the neighborhood. There locals gather to work out but just as often to chat. Among my acquaintances are a teacher of literature from a high school for gifted students, professor of law from National University of Vietnam, lecturer at the Police Academy, Canadian teacher of English, retired head of VOV French department and her husband, retired entrepreneur, German-Vietnamese businessman, and Vietnam’s greatest female athlete to name a few.

Two standouts. One trainer, Dung, specializes in converting lazy out-of-shape people into Olympic athletes. She does this with a strict regimen of aerobics and weight lifting. She also does Thai deep muscle massage. Gym patrons know she’s massaging people by the loud screams that echo through the gym. Miraculously, Dung’s clients emerge with a new body after several months of abuse

Another standout is my hero. An is a man who suffered a serious stroke years ago. Where most people would have long ago given up, An comes to the gym nearly every day, where he swims for an hour. Even though his body is wasting away, he is rock hard from working out. He refuses to use a wheelchair, preferring to walk with the help of an assistant. It is my honor to help him navigate to a lounge chair where he rests until he’s ready to leave. He can barely speak, but he shares stories of his life. What a great example of courage and the human spirit.

The happiest man in Vietnam

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Photo: An Thanh Dat

Literally, the happiest man in Vietnam lives down the block from me. He used to be a next door neighbor until he moved out to build his own condo complex, complete with shops on the ground floor. Nearly every day I see him sitting in front of his building on a chair where he watches the world pass by. I wave to him every day and sometimes chat. I asked him why he’s so happy. He said he just is. Everything is going well for him and he pays the universe back by always smiling. Whenever I’m out of sorts, I walk by him and immediately feel better. He seems to have some magical power.

The optician whose all about customer service

Sadly, our local optician retired and closed his business. He and his wife Phuong treat their customers like family. You come to the store for glasses, and they immediately serve you and deliver your glasses at warp speed. If you need glasses after hours, he comes to the store to help. Even though his business closed down, he said, not to worry, call him up and he will help.

While in the shop, Phuong often shares her lunch. During the growing season in Vietnam, he shares produce from the countryside and we do the same. The family’s daughter married a very nice Japanese fellow with whom she had a child. Whenever we pass the shop we have to stop by and play with the “Japanese baby.”

Moto taxi family

The moto taxi is the preferred mode of transportation for many Vietnamese. Until recently, we were fortunate to have their home base right outside our apartment. They started helping us many years ago, since our children were in primary school. They rode through freezing rain and blistering sun, day and night until the kids graduated from high school. Husband and wife share rides. Sometimes, even their daughter chips in the help.

We became very close. We shared food from the countryside, and give gifts during Tet. Most amazingly, they trained our two children how to ride motorbikes.

Food venders

We are a special needs family when it comes to meat. I prefer certain cuts of beef, pork and chicken. Our butcher calls to let us know that a beast will be slaughtered that morning so the meat will be fresh. We often get first choice. When the butcher has some fine cuts remaining, she calls to let us know and even delivers them to the apartment.

We have a Vietnamese aquatic turtle who is a member of our family. She eats shrimp and fish, which must be freshly caught. Time is of the essence when feeding time comes: she can tell if her food is even minutes too old. She also requires a skilled technician to clean her water tank and a water delivery guy to provide bottled water. Acquaintances are amazed that the turtle lives a better life than her owners.

VinMart, a mini-store, employees young people who treat us well. They often deliver food to our door, but always refuse a tip, even when they are out in driving rainstorms.  

Familiar faces

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Photo: An Thanh Dat

Our neigborhood is alive with the faces of people who work but do not live there.

Hanh, an employee of a local convenience store, exemplifies customer service. When her store runs out of product we need, she immediately calls around to branch stores and has it delivered to us. When our bags are too heavy, she transports them by motorbike to our building.

Phuong is our building’s receptionist. She is always smiling and friendly. We jokingly call her a "film star". There's nothing better than walking into or out of the building while being greeted by a bright smile!

Two young girls, students working part-time at a convenience store in our building have an important role to play in addition to selling food. They deliver packages ordered online to residents and store fresh food in the store’s refrigerators dropped off by local vendors. When you’re cooking and run out spices, the girls will immediately bring you what you need.

One of our security guards widely respected for his hard-work and dedication. The parking lot is out of order, motorbikes are driving in the wrong direction at high speed, cars are parked in a disorganized manner, cargo trucks are blocking the entrance... don't worry, there's a security guard on hand to handle it all. Importantly, he does his job with a certain panache and engaging smile.

If there is a superstar who can assemble, repair, or operate any device, machine, or tool, especially where others have failed, it is our handyman, Tuan. If your wall develops a leak, your stove shorts out, the wiring in your house becomes dangerously obsolete, or you need your bedroom rebuilt, Tuan can handle it. Most importantly, he is instantly available.

We have a Montessori Kindergarten next door. Everyday rows of children line up, hold hands and march single file to the playground. Their smiling faces and cheerful laughs brighten everyone’s day, keeping us young at heart. No words are enough to describe this cuteness!

Changes are coming

I fear that changes are coming to our neighborhood and many more like it. Massive malls, mega stores, parking decks, restaurants, and condo complexes, not to mention the light rail system, new bridges and overpasses, and widened highways, all producing infinitely more traffic are squeezing the life out of the neighborhood.

Such places are becoming things of the past, not to be seen again.

Terry Buss