Living alone in my old house in Sai Gon certainly has its advantages. I can do pretty much what I want whenever I want without bothering anybody. However, it can also be a very lonely and isolating experience. Even though I have many friends in this city and, modern communications being what they are, I can contact family and friends back in Australia easily and cheaply, sometimes I need human contact at odd times.
This morning I felt very much in need of some interaction with other people, and fortunately for me I have the perfect place in which to receive this. I have only to walk a few meters down to the corner of my hem and sit with my neighbours at ca phe Kieu to have all the interaction that I need. There is no place called ca phe Kieu by the way. It’s just that Kieu is the lady who has been selling ca phe from her small stall in this spot for as long as I have been here and I’m sure for many years before that.
This morning, all it took were a few smiles and nods of acknowledgement from some of my neighbours to remove my feelings of loneliness and to help ground me again.
I’ve discovered over the years that if I just go and sit and order my ca phe da the life of the hem comes to me. I don’t have to do any more than simply be there and inevitably some facet of life within this small community will present itself or a conversation will start, someone will make a joke, children will come and say hello, someone will come and sit next to me, offer me a newspaper with latest football news.
Places like ca phe Kieu exist everywhere in Viet Nam. No matter where you go you will always find a place to sit and watch the activities of the local community and strike up a conversation with someone and it is a very special facet of life in this country. There is a very real sense of togetherness in these places as people meet to gossip and talk about events in their lives.
Many young people who I have spoken to in the course of my research here are concerned that as modernity envelopes Viet Nam, this sense of community is fast disappearing. One observation was that if I looked around in my own hem I would now see new houses with tall gates that are always locked whereas 10 years ago the house were older and open to all. Another is that as more automobiles appear on the roads they too are vehicles of isolation unlike motorbikes where you are close to each other and can feel everybody around you.
I have to say that sadly, I agree with these observations, and as I see more and more of the older houses being replaced by modern fortresses and more and more cars on the roads, I can only assume that as time goes by, this loss of communal togetherness will increase. It’s all a part of the modernisation process with a population that is becoming wealthy as Viet Nam embraces consumerism.
Some young people have observed that individualism is on the increase as people become obsessed with success and less concerned about others in their communities. Does all this sound familiar? It most likely does if you are reading this and you come from a country that embraced consumerism decades ago.
Life in the hems of Viet Nam is one of the better things that I’ve observed in a communist system. Each hem is a commune within its own right and the sense of community is alive and well. But wait, what’s that noise I hear. Oh, it’s another old house in the hem being demolished.
I’d better get back down to ca phe Kieu before it no longer exists.