The rear of my hem is a rabbit warren of tiny alleyways that interconnect in a somewhat bewildering fashion. It is easy to get temporarily lost in here but if you know the way they are very handy for travelling quickly from one point to another without having to step out onto the busy crowded main roads. I often walk through these narrow dark hems to go and eat in the many tiny restaurants that serve an amazing variety of great foods on Nguyen Thuong Hien St. and lately I have been promising myself that I would stop and discover what it is that I see one old man doing every time that I pass by.
This old man is tiny and as thin as a whip, in fact I wouldn’t be surprised if I could wrap my hands around his waist and have them touch, and I have noticed that he is always very active. His house is minuscule and it seems as if it was wedged into its position as an afterthought between two existing structures but its tiny space is crammed full of interesting looking bits and pieces. Its solid timber door and louvred window are painted bright blue and they sit directly on the alleyway and his hard timber workbench which no doubt doubles as his bed, occupies most of the space in these cramped quarters. This workspace sits directly inside the door and I have noticed that the old man is usually sitting at it dressed only in a pair of baggy blue shorts intently working away at some project or another.
I asked Mimi if she knew what this old man did and she thought that he spent his time making toys for children, but she wasn’t really sure and was also intrigued to find out what he did as she had been walking past his door for many years. So, last night after we finished our meal we walked back to his house and introduced ourselves. We stood just outside his door and I asked Mimi to explain to the old gentleman that we were both inquisitive and would he mind showing us what it was that he did in there.
The old man smiled a wide toothless grin and invited us to step inside. He cleared a space for me to sit on his bench and offered Mimi his usual seat on which to perch. Next to his bench and hard up against it sits a table and this table is completely covered in a wide assortment of paraphanalia. It is piled high with paper and books of all types and sizes. Scissors and glues and tiny bits of plastic cut into interesting shapes fight for the limited space with string and strangely shaped tools made from wire.
The house consists of just this single room that measures approximately 3 metres wide and 4 metres deep with about a 1 metre section divided off at the rear by a glass fronted cupboard and the family alter bearing photographs of parents and two brothers. The ceiling is low and made of rough timber while the brickwork in which the door and window frame sit is rough and exposed reinforcing my belief that the house is an afterthought. The room is lit by a single fluorescent tube and there is a tiny opening up through the ceiling in the back left hand corner, but no sign of a ladder or any other means of ascending up into a space above us. There is no fan or any other means of cooling and no breeze finds its way into this dark and narrow space. Sweat begins to drip from my forehead almost immediately but I notice that the old man looks as cool as a cucumber.
He tells us that he makes toys for children and he also binds books that he has had photocopied. He explains that there are many poor children who he likes to help and that he belongs to a group of older people who get together and involve themselves in these small projects. He tells us that he is 74 years of age and points proudly to his bicycle saying that he is still sprightly and able to get around. I tell him that I am very impressed that he is so active and that he is obviously keeping himself busy and his brain alert. He agrees that this is important and demonstrates for us his technique of sitting in the lotus position and breathing deeply for a few minutes as a way of curing lethargy and dispelling fatigue.
He begins to pull intricately made toys from the glass fronted cupboard, first a delicate butterfly, then a more complicated goat made from layers of thin ply and a plastic bi-plane with a single seat for the pilot reminiscent of the Wright brothers. He shows us the books that he has rebound by hand to distribute to children who cannot afford to buy them, children poorer than himself. He opens small boxes that contain mysterious looking wheels with tiny compasses at their hubs. Dials rotate in these wheels that contain all types of strange symbols and I realise that these are instruments of Feng Shui used to decide where to place rooms of a new house and which way to orient them. These he makes by hand.
He shows Mimi that she is actually sitting on what appears to be an old rectangular plastic tub that is full of pieces of quartz in a variety of hues and explains that, by sitting on this quartz as he works, he gains the therapeutic value of the energy that they exude. This is what helps keep him healthy he tells us.
We ask him where does he eat, how does he prepare food as there is no evidence of a kitchen or running water for that matter. He tells us that he has relatives who live in the next hem and that this is where he goes each day to take his meals. Originally he comes from Dalat and still has a brother living there who he occasionally visits.
He shows us his radio cassette player and explains that he loves listening to the radio late at night. He is interested in politics and often records political sessions onto tape so that he can listen to them later. He shows us his collection of old reel to reel tapes on which he has recorded many radio programs over the years, but alas, he no longer has a tape deck on which to play them. I tell him that I have a tape deck, but that unfortunately it is in storage back in Australia. If only it was here he says, I could sit and listen to my old tapes.
The whole time that we sit and talk the old man is happy and courteous and obviously enjoys the chance to show what it is he does. At one stage as I sit and listen to Mimi and he conversing I look at Mimi’s face and realise that it is glowing. She is really enjoying talking with this old man and finding out some of his history. Later, after we have taken our leave and I am leaving Mimi at the front door of her parents house I ask her if, now that she has met this old gentleman, she will take the time to stop and talk with him again. She says oh yes for sure, she has already told him that she will do that from time to time and that she really enjoyed the chance to finally discover who he is and what he does. Now when she goes past his door she will always say hello. I think that will be a good thing for both of them.
I wander down the hem to our house in a very happy frame of mind.