Elizabeth Pond
Elizabeth Pond

Fellowship Title:

Sunday in Saigon

Elizabeth Pond
February 13, 1970

Fellowship Year

The two boys, stooped on the sidewalk in front of the rows of jars, scrutinize the 45 goldfish and gesture the comparative merits of each. The objects of their attention swim in incessant truncated figure eights in bottle after bottle, as their stocky proprietress regards the boys impassively. Crowds eddy through the narrow passageway left between the makeshift sidewalk stands with their tarpaulin roofs. Oblivious to the jostling, the boys deliberate for ten minutes, then with some quick bargaining hand over 50 piasters. Without once losing a drop of water or her jaded expression, the proprietress nets the winner in a plastic bag, cascades fish and water into another plastic carrying bag, squeezes excess water back into the original jar, and secures the bag with a looped rubber band. The boys rise and set off in the melee, shielding their prize with elbows and frowns.

On either side apathetic rabbits and chickens, sometimes sharing the same woven cages, await their fate. Plumbing faucets and joints, Samsonite luggage, C-rations, canned Chinese delicacies, new Sony radios, and shaving lotion vie for buyers’ attention, as does a bewildering proliferation of nozzles, muzzles, mothballs, mops, rope, hose, stoves, soap, corks, books; film, drills, saws, chains, jeans; watches, wallets, wrenches, glasses, sandals, brushes, blankets, wads of shoelaces, Japanese underwear, Playboy calendars, toy tanks, shiny tempura pans, spoons made out of napalm casings, and Martel whiskey (or at least caveat emptor – the bottles and labels thereof).

A few vendors look bored, but there is a community of shared gossip and hot sun. There is the smell of ripe meat and green tea and nuoc mam fish sauce and dry rice and engine grease and garlic. There are the sounds of sizzling fat, gunned Honda,s, squealed brakes, horns, blared radios, hammerings, cap pistols, fire and ordnance disposal sirens, shouts, off-key scales of plastic pipes of Pan, and the clang of the large scissors of the sweets man as he wheels his bicycle along. Everywhere visible is the hanging blue haze of gas exhaust that is renewed in viscous puffs with every surge of traffic.

It is Sunday in Saigon.

Not that the sidewalk market with its colorful disguised unemployment doesn’t exist on other days. It does. But Sunday is the day off for students and workers and bureaucrats alike. Family after family dresses in good clothes, piles into the Honda (in numbers of four, five, or even eight per machine) and heads downtown to shop or stroll.

A pedicab driver rides by looking for fares, resting one foot in midair suspension while he pedals slowly with the other, his calf muscles rippling. A forklift ambles by in the opposite direction and is passed by an American jeep named Rosie.

One woman in black pajamas and conical hat presides over a basket of squirming muddy crabs. Other women hunch down under their dropped carrying poles and dispense bowls of assorted food from their baskets to customers arrayed on diminutive stools. Most are specialists, selling only one edible, whether it be sticky rice in palm leaves, sugar cane, coleslaw sandwiches made from the light bread that has well outlasted the French occupation, pink grapefruit, serrated pineapple, apples, or watermelon cleavered open. By a natural economic law, most do not themselves eat their specialty, but dine on cheaper foods.

On a somewhat grander scale, wheeled wagons offer soups, noodles, rice, dried squid, glutinous drinks, tea, beansprouts. Bowls and glasses are rinsed out for successive customers in multipurpose pans of water.

One man with a brazier of coals cooks small shashlik at the curbside. One vendor pushes a wagon with pocked rubber tires down the street; the wagon lurches with the grip of the uneven tires, and the big square jars of pastel liquids slosh erratically. The more thrifty Vietnamese do not buy, but bring their own meals in tiered and fitted lunch pails.

A pedicab goes by loaded to overflowing with carrots. Barely visible among them is an old woman who guards them against sudden bumps by curling her bare foot around the base of the pile. A farmer from the delta, equally immersed in indignant ducks, rides in the middle of a pediwagon he has hired. His ducks show more spirit then the moribund chickens that lie about here and there and seem to be surviving the ordeal of tied feet and a half-day trip atop an intercity bus with more dignity.

Several players and kibitzers squat next to a wall over a game of Vietnamese chess. Others play cards in doorways – Southerners, most likely, with their inveterate love of gambling – losing their monthly wages or money entrusted to their care.

One stray bar girl, incongruous this early in the day, walks by in a tight striped T-shirt and bellbottom slacks. Her hair is half up and half flowing. Under her arm is an item wrapped – as is any purchase in Saigon, large or small, flat or awkward, tough or fragile – in coarse pink paper.

One man quickwalks under the weight of a pig carcass. A 24- or 25-year-old with one leg missing stumbles along on crutches that have long since lost their rubber grips. One woman with her arms full of packages keeps dropping flowers and bending over to pick then up, only to have them fall once more. A man urinates in a semi-modest direction. One seller hawks a single pair of shoes, confident that someone with that exact size foot and that exact stylistic taste exists and will find him. One girl placidly reads Racine in French.

Long-haired Filipino lads in embroidered shirts, tight shiny pants, and pointed shoes swagger by, members of some rock band imported into Vietnam to entertain the GIs by one of the 57 booking agencies in Saigon.

Little children tend – or occasionally torment – littler children. With much giggling, girls play a static jumping-rope game with a daisy chain of linked rubber bands. Orphan shoeshine boys work the restaurant and street trade for an income of a little over two dollars a day, or more than a policeman earns. Other boys sell ices from styrofoam hampers half as big as themselves. Still others sit on the curbs, painting faces on balloons to add to the four-foot high tree of balloons on their bicycles (spatter-painting themselves liberally in the process). some urchins get money from parkers for “watching” their cars. It’s not exactly a racket; downtown is not like the “abattoir” district of Saigon coming in from the delta where a truck can be stripped down as quickly as it takes a driver to get a lingering cup of tea. But some parkers consider it prudent to give a small tip to boys who have not let air out of their tires.

One boy darts out to a soft-drinks truck that is stalled in traffic and with the ease of obvious experience lifts two bottles of orange drink through the side slats of the truck, then darts back to the curb, staying always-out of the driver’s line of vision. Two of his comrades play badminton, using the palms of their hands as rackets. One girl patiently picks lice out of her grandmother’s hair.

Stands with coal-heated irons and sheets of plastic offer to plasticize ID cards or anything else. For those who desire even more of a status symbol, the stands offer a pyramidal name plaque that one suspects is the peculiar contribution of the American bureaucracy.

On the corner an open-air motorcycle repair shop, its locale etched in the sidewalk by months of spilled grease, does a brisk business. Amid the scattered viscera of motors, an apprentice solders an overturned pedicab.

Nearby, an outdoor barber with his mirror and his upholstered chair does well in what must be Vietnam’s most common profession, even in the poorest refugee camp. Next to him, an old shave-headed woman squats on a chair and beseeches passersby to buy her fanned-out lottery tickets. A beggar dips his hat obsequiously. Women who have sold enough of their goods to make the day’s trip worthwhile already sleep curled up in any patch of shade they can find.

Suddenly a tidal wave of laughing women with bags slung over their shoulders in Santa Claus fashion moves out to the traffic island and pauses to see if further flight is propitious. It is a periodic ritual; whenever the “white mice,” the police in their gray and white uniforms, saunter past, the illegal sidewalk squatters scoop up all their merchandise in the tarpaulins it displayed on and vacate their erstwhile premises with due speed. The footwork usually lasts no more then a few minutes, but it is wise to be alert, for once or twice a year there is a show crackdown that for all its fanfare always seems to hit the little operators rather than the wholesalers in the black market.

It is thus, like so much in Vietnam, a question of survival. The little operators do depend on the black market for their livelihood. In downtown Saigon here and now the war means abundant PX goods for all. It means jobs of one sort or another for wife and eldest daughter who have drifted into the big city to escape bombing and shooting, to forget the death of a son and brother, and to augment the meager soldier’s wages of the husband.

Once upon a time the war meant the breakup of village, traditions and the old social cohesion, but for the young, at least, this is now past history. The mother may have betel-nut teeth and wear her hair in a tight bun and remember her village as she lights joss sticks in one of the big pots with ferns that have replaced the French trees in downtown Saigon. But the daughter has a pedicure and a fall of artificial curls and a boyfriend who, until he is drafted, drag races his motorcycle at night on the main street of Saigon.

The chin-whiskered elder in black mandarin dress is an anachronism these days. He can still be seen, doubly protected against the sun by his white pith helmet and his tall-crowned black umbrella, carving his own unreal tranquility out of the general turmoil, the long fingernail on his little finger proclaiming his gentlemanly class. But he is outdated.

Slightly less of an anachronism, if only because of the strong role of women in Vietnam’s historical continuity, is the mandarin’s counterpart. She stands immobile, a fragile-looking grandmother in Northern rolled headband and all-white ao dai, the flowing dress of ankle-length skirt panels over silk trousers.

The women’s son arrives on his Honda, and she floats rather than walks to the curbside to sit serenely on the back of the machine. He shoots into the mix of motor cyclos, jeeps, trucks, pedicabs, bicycles with women balanced sidesaddle on rear fenders, and vintage blue-and-white Renault taxis with rear engines aired by tin can props and meters cleverly stuffed with rags.

Across the street the outdoor construction elevator on the three-story building that is having its roof lifted is stilled for the day, without the rhythmic sound and motion of workers cranking it by hand. On the second floor, wall-less on the street front during construction like some risen stage, the sheet hung by the family that continues to live there undulates in the breeze. On the roof of a higher neighboring building, elegant penthouse squatters hang out long lines of wash. From their lofty vantage point the sub-teens boy and girl in the family lean over the railing and watch the humanity below.

It is Sunday in Saigon.

Received in New York on February 13, 1970.

©1970 Elizabeth Pond

Miss Pond is an Alicia Patterson Fund award winner on leave from the Christian Science Monitor. This article may be published with credit to Miss Pond, the Christian Science Monitor, and the Alicia Patterson Fund