Familiar Faces in Saigon

It’s hot in Saigon. At 10 o’clock in the morning it’s already thirty degrees with a mounting noon day sun. Rivers of sweat stream down my chest and my t-shirt is wet against my skin. We’re in the market area of old Cholon, the Chinese quarter of  Ho Chi Minh City.  I avoid a passing motorcycle and hug a shade on the sidewalk.

Up ahead Arnaud our photo guide,  is telling us to use f3.5 for close-up portrait shots.

“You muss go in cloze,” he says.

Arnaud is a Frenchman living in Vietnam and enjoying the life of full time street photography.   His enthusiasm is passionate and relentless. We’ve spent three hours walking  and he hasn’t stopped talking once. Lucky for me, he latches on to my Paris born husband and lapses into French.

Two street vendors set-up stalls across a narrow pathway; one selling food, the other selling flowers.  I take a quick shot of the flower vendor. She seems familiar. The set of her mouth, the curve of her nose, the slant of her eyes. She reminds me of my grandmother.

Her friend across the street calls out, laughing and a little jealous of her attention.  I take her picture too. I’m rewarded with a bright mischievous grin

Up ahead Luc and Arnaud are circling a bemused old man. He’s been caught waiting for his wife. Arnaud’s behemoth Nikon hovers near the man’s face. He catches my eye and I shake my head apologetically. After they’ve moved on, I take my shot from a respectable f5.6 and 35mm distance.

“Are you Japanese?” he says in perfect English.

I shake my head and un-mindfuly say “Chinese.”

“Wo shi hua ren,” he says. He holds his hand three feet off the ground. “Wo li kai zhong guo shi, hai shi ge xiao nan hai.”

I catch the words ‘zhong guo’ for China. I gather that he’s originally from China and that he left for Vietnam when he was very small.

Later when I look at the map of Vietnam, I realize how close it is to China. It shares a border with Guangxi, the southern most province and homeland of my great great grandfather.  Looking closer at the old man’s photo, I see the familiar Han nose and hooded almond shaped eyes. Clumps of stiff white hair bristle from his cheek.

It reminds me of my father, who at eighty three years doesn’t see or shave as well as he used to. In fact this man has an uncanny resemblance to my father’s friend, Uncle Louie. I call him uncle not because he’s a relative but because it’s the traditional term of respect for Chinese elders. When I was little I used to think that I had the biggest family in the world. Maybe I wasn’t half wrong.

Photos taken in HCMC, Vietnam. 2015


If We Were Having Coffee … Ca phe

Viet Coffe
Ca phe da & Ca phe sua nong

If we were having coffee I’d be having iced ca phe da and you’d be having hot ca phe sua nong. We’d be sitting in a hip Vietnamese cafe waiting on our banh mi sandwiches. On the wall behind us a flickering screen would play a reel of old Saigon street scenes filled with people moving with jerky imprecision. All around us we’d hear music from the ’70s, old disco and throw back rock.

I’m nodding my head to the Bee Gee’s “Tragedy” and trying to remember what I was doing in 1977.   Studying for exams. Thinking about university. Watching Star Wars and Saturday Night Fever.

I stir my coffee with the bamboo straw and take a sip from the blue enamel tin cup. Vietnamese ca phe is strong and black, made with metal filter drips placed over a coffee cup pre-filled with a layer of sweet condensed milk.

Last year I went to Vietnam for a leisurely one week photo crawl through Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City.) On the pathways around Notre Dame Cathedral, students drank sidewalk ca phe and nearby alleyways hid coffee making cubby holes. Reggie, my Saigon guide, told me not to buy the sidewalk ca phe because vendors roast the beans with cheap corn and unknown fillers.

At 21 years old, Reggie was a good looking  hipster dude.  He wore long shorts, horn rimmed glasses and a newsie cap. He liked plaid shirts, risotto, film photography and Irish girls. He reminded me of my teenage son.

Which means his parents could have been my age.  Except that in 1977 Saigon they would’ve been  in a different world. Reggie said that after  the fall of Saigon, his father was in a  trại học tập cải tạo (re-education camp) for twelve years.  He said it quietly and didn’t elaborate.  He’s an only son whose lifestyle reflects indulgent parents. Parents like me, but with different memories when hearing “Tragedy.”