So I’m sitting on my balcony, coding articles into a 14-page taxonomy. It’s 85 and humid, but breezy because I’m on the 3rd floor, so not at all bad. I can only barely hear the melee of honking traffic because our house is on one of the thousand little alleys that break off from the city streets.
These alleys are too small for a car to come down, so transporting anything (furniture, building materials, etc) is done by motorbike or by cart. Neighbors building a new patio? Four guys with wheelbarrows transport paving stones 75 meters from the truck parked on the street to the house. We moved here from the temporary apartment by hiring two xe om drivers (motorbike taxis) to carry everything from the taxi full of our stuff into our courtyard. Most Hanoians live on one of these little alleys (called a ‘ngo’ and then usually associated with a number, so “nha so 42, ngo 8 pho da tuong” is “house #42, alley 8, da tuong street”), children, chickens, and the most popular dog in VN, the chihuahua, run around. Laundry hangs out windows and on the electrical wires that criss-cross the open space in the middle.
Anyway I’m sitting on our balcony overlooking our little alley, coding articles into this 14-page taxonomy. The paint on our french colonial house is flaking off, showing the various shades of yellow hidden beneath. It’s beautiful, more beautiful (in my opinion) than the refinished and updated french colonial next door. I have a thin plastic bag containing an entire pineapple, cut into wedges, with an accompanying tiny bag of chili salt (for sprinkling on the pineapple) all of which cost 10,000 vnd…or 50 cents.
This house with its open shutters and windows, balconies and plants…it acquires a lot of dust. And so I hired a maid. Most of the furnished apartments in the city come with a cleaning and laundry service, 3 times a week, but that seems absurd. How much of a mess can 2 people and a dog make in a week to require 3 cleaning sessions? Anyway this one is partially furnished, and that means finding your own cleaning lady. Anyway I find a lovely woman named Thanh who likes dogs and who’ll come 4-6 hours a week, who appreciates the old feel that we love about the place. I explained our peculiarities; how Andrew hangs used-but-still-clean clothes on any available chair, how I pick things up with the intention of putting them away before getting distracted and leave them somewhere entirely non-sensical. How Ethel scatters her pile of toys around the apartment, insistent that there is at least one in every room, just in case. She tells me what I should be doing differently to keep a house in the tropics clean and mold free. We get along well, she seems to like me, laughs at Ethel, and loves when I use Vietnamese instead of English to explain things. And yet it’s uncomfortable, to sit on a balcony with pineapple doing my work while someone cleans our house.
Urban migration is a major problem in Vietnam (like most developing countries) and people from the rural communities where there isn’t much opportunity flock to the cities to find work that is better paid and that comes with more opportunity. The government tries to stave this problem by requiring work permits in order for people to get housing in the city – demonstrate that you’ve found a job here before you can move here. Thousands work around this by sleeping on mats in their cousin’s living room, renting out tiny rooms in other houses, or squatting. It’s worth it for the work. Except if you’re in the city illegally you can’t bring your child along, even if you can afford housing that has space for them, because they’re only allowed to attend school in your home province. Men and women leave their children with grandparents to come to Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City for work, sending home whatever they can. Jobs in the informal sector that don’t require work permits are the most popular, so many of the people who work as maids, as xe om drivers, as construction workers, as street vendors – are from the countryside.
But I still feel weird, hiring a woman to help around the house. It doesn’t matter that Vietnamese families also often have help, or that I gave her what she asked for an hourly wage, or that the hourly wage asked of foreigners is 3 or 4 times more than maids who work in Vietnamese households…it’s just…odd. But what is the solution? Not hiring anyone? Would my insistence on self-reliance do anything other than make myself feel good? It feels vaguely better to make sure I’m paying a generous hourly wage and be very very appreciative of her work. Oh and of course I need to remember that I can’t get too used to this because it certainly isn’t everywhere that paying someone whatever they ask ends up being about $2.50 / hour, and having a maid is a luxury I probably won’t have elsewhere.
Right, so I’m sitting on my balcony, coding articles into this 14-page taxonomy. And my maid comes out, and asks where I’d like her to hang the pile of dresses that have been sitting on a chair in the bedroom since we moved in (so I guess Andrew’s not the only one who puts things on chairs – damnit). She can’t hang them up because we don’t have enough hangers. So now I’ve been put in charge of watching for the “plastic things” street vendor, given my location on the balcony. What is that, you ask?
Well instead of going to a store to buy your random things made out of plastic, you can buy them from a street vendor who has LOADED a bicycle with everything from colanders to plastic stools, mats, bowls, cups, jugs, tarps, ponchos, and yes…hangers. This mass of plastic things is probably at least a meter-square, but probably more like 1.5. She walks around all day, maneuvering it down the little alleys, singing something indiscernable to me but probably notable as the “plastic stuff” lady to everyone else. You call down to her, tell her to wait a minute, she puts up her kickstand and then you can sort through her things and strike a deal. I told Thanh that I could grab some at the store over the weekend, no problem. She told me that was silly, that they were way more expensive there, and that she thought I’d forget anyway. She’s quite likely right on all counts. So I’m watching for the plastic stuff lady. Another street vendor comes by as I write this, walking a bicycle bearing bamboo baskets on either side. One is full of bowls (glass), the other holds a pot wrapped in cloth full of hot rice porridge (called chao in Vietnamese). It’s made with chicken broth and sprinkled with fresh herbs and sliced chili. It looks delicious, and from the steam coming off the pot I bet it smells delicious, but goes onto the long list of Vietnamese foods inedible to a vegetarian. She walks through the alley, singing out that she’s got rice porridge for sale, and a little old lady walks out, specifies what she wants on her porridge, hands over a small bill, and walks back inside. With the glass bowl! Apparently this chao vendor will be back to pick it up. I am now impressed both by her ability to push a bike loaded with rice porridge and glassware through this crazy city AND with her ability to remember all the spots where she left bowls. She waves to the nguoi tay (foreigner) up on the balcony watching all this, I shake my head with a smile, she heads off. This is so great.
So that’s what I’m doing today. Sitting on my balcony, coding articles into a 14-page taxonomy, eating some pineapple, and watching for the plastic stuff lady to come through so my maid can hang up my dresses. This is my life.