It's Tet here. Public employees get nine days off, counting an unpaid weekend. Millions abandon cities for their home villages, leaving most of Hanoi and Saigon suddenly unclogged, so crossing the street is no longer a harrowing adventure. Prices are jacked up, including for long distance buses, hotel rooms, meals and even haircuts.
The week before Tet, buses arrived in Ea Kly several times a day with returning natives. At my usual cafe, I could see them disembark in the early dawn. The cafe's owner's husbands and two oldest sons weren't among them, however, and it was because they had to work over the holiday, or so Mrs. Ha said, and her daughter was stuck in the Philippines, where she had been employed for five months in a Chinese factory. Since Filipino wages were already low, the 27-year-old was only being paid $173 a month, plus room, board, the experience of living in another country and a chance to improve her English. She's becoming worldly. The vast majority of people in Ea Kly have never been on a plane.
Hours before I boarded a bus for Saigon, I had coffee with several of our plastic recycling plant employees. We sat in a cool, spacious and fairly well-landscaped garden. Our waitress was a teenager in a white T-shirt, "West 14th Street New York / URBAN CITY," that was lightly speckled with coffee stains. She had a bemused look on her face that was slightly deranged, especially when she started to goof around. "Please forgive me!" she'd cackle.
Twenty-two-year-old Tiny, real name Huong, brought her four-year-old daughter and three-year-old son, who came barefoot. Tiny's husband had just returned from Saigon, where he spent ten days working as a housepainter, my old trade.
"None," Tiny evenly confirmed. "He bought a pair of flip flops for my daughter," worth just over two bucks, "and a pack of candies for my son."
"Nothing for me."
"So why did he even bother going to Saigon?!"
Tiny just smiled. Her young man likely spent all of his earnings on women and booze. Though they live with his parents, they don't eat with them, for Tiny doesn't get along with her mother-in-law, a notoriously difficult woman.
It's good to be back in Saigon, but I'd say that about any place, for I can't remember regretting being anywhere. If I should wake up tomorrow lying on the sidewalk in front of the long shuttered Grandmas Tacos in Gary, Indiana, I would surely exclaim, "My, it's great to be back in Jacko's hometown!"
I'm glad to see old faces. I drop by Mrs. Yen's cafe. For Tet, she's going to Vung Tau with her two grown children, a daughter who works in a factory and a fat, good-for-nothing and likely retarded son who sits around all day, talking big to his buddies. What will he do when she dies?
She'll pay $160 for two nights in a 3-star hotel near Back Beach. It's a rip off, but that's Tet for you. Mrs. Yen is a most lovely and gentle person. Charging 43 cents for a cup of coffee or can of soda, she makes money a few pennies at a time, with many of her customers the employees at a box making factory across an alley. One joked, "The service is slow here, and you don't get to look at a young, pretty girl, just an old one!"
Six months ago, I profiled a domestic servant, Ỵ. Since then, she had bought herself a fancy phone for $345, on credit, which promptly got ripped from her hands a month later, as she stood yakking in some alley. Bereft, she must keep making those payments. For Tet, Ỵ has spent over $200 to buy her dead father an artfully crafted papier-mâche' car, two chauffeurs, fistfuls of fake dollars and a "rental house," so he could derive an income in hell, where even Ỵ admitted the wife-beating drunk belonged. Pious, she burnt.
Thinking he was going back to their home village, Ỵ's 17-year-old-son got a stylish haircut, complete with blonde highlights, which looked great with his gold chain, then he changed his mind, for the trip would more than bankrupt the factory worker. As a returning city dweller, he would be expected to give all of his relatives money or gifts, and to pay for drinking bouts with old friends. The same dread likely prevents Mrs. Ha's sons and husband from showing up in Ea Kly during Tet.
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