In Vietnam, the street isn’t just a passageway from one place to another. The street is where a whole part of life takes place. More still; the street is a fine place for life to take place. Being in the street is like being at home.
Anything goes in the streets of Vietnam. Motorbikes and lorries dodge one another haphazardly, with peak times between the morning hours of six and seven thirty, and then again between five and eight in the evening. Yet, traffic is not the main occupant of these streets and it’s certainly far from being the main reason the way things are as they are. What makes the streets what they are is the people that fill them.
As soon as the sun begins to rise, scads of merchants set up shop on the pavements, pouring onto the road for want of more space. They settle down into their usual spot, sprawling out as if at home. People know where to go to grab their favourite banh mi (sandwich). They know which market seller will give them the best price for their pitahayas. Commerce at its best. The ones selling meat are the ones that intrigue me the most; slicing, chopping and spreading out their slabs of fresh flesh and fat in the hot sun, where they patiently wait for a buyer to pass by. And there’s no catch. They don’t try to “demeat” their meat. Here, roast chickens are on full display, idly hanging in the window, heads and feet still intact. At least we can tell the difference between them at the dog’s tails laid out on the rickety table. Nothing is disguised. Blood, entrails, smells, pools of fish guts…
Street life: a passion. It’s not just me, who’s discovering such animation and other unusual details for the first time, who watches life unfold before me; the Vietnamese themselves thrive off of it. It’s not a rare sight to see them crouched down in front of their iron gates, where they’ll spend hours simply watching the street activity before them! There are even cafés where all the chairs face the street, just so each customer can watch the events, at will, calmly sipping their iced coffee! And there’s no shame in people-watching like this, like spectators of a circus show, watching the life street show! So, I join them; intently gazing away.
The home – an extension of the street
In Vietnam, the street extends into the houses. The architecture is very simple: house fronts are very narrow (the price of a house is linked to the size of its façade that gives onto the street) and the rooms follow one onto the other towards the back, narrow and deep. Taking up the majority of the façade surface, the front door looks more like that of a garage. You just have to pass in front of a Vietnamese house to see right through into the main living areas, each room looking like the next: a dark wood television cabinet, a television (varying in size), a photo of late family members and a tiled floor. Add a mother sat on the ground and a naked child clambering about and there you have it; a typical Vietnamese home – an extension of the street.
The Vietnamese are far from privy. Of course, poorer families are more numerous and live more tightly in the same surface space, but this lack of intimacy is completely unrelated to class. I noted a distinct, flagrant example fighting against this choice whilst walking around my area. Within a matter of a few weeks, a house was built, and – an undeniable sign of the owners’ wealth – they built a wall around the property. I ask myself whether we’d do the same at home, just to make sure things stay private… Well, not in Vietnam! But the wall wasn’t made of cement, nor stone. It was mainly made of glass. Like an enormous window for onlookers to continue watching the family life live show!
The majority of Vietnamese houses are next to one another along one street. Normal, you might think. At least in the towns. Less so in the countryside, where I rather expected to see houses or shopping centres around an epicentre of some sort… But even here, houses are finely aligned with a street crossing through them in the middle, as if each house had to face another, all facing the same direction. In Vietnam, that ‘epicentre of some sort’, the place where it’s all happening, that’s the street.
By Béatrice Goddard. Originally published on Enfants du Mékong magazine 173.