Just ten minutes walk from the spires of Notre Dame Cathedral, the Post Office and the colonial thoroughfare of Dong Khoi in the centre of Saigon is the alley where I live.
What follows is not a replete canvas of the broad, beautiful sweep that is Vietnam, but a miniature, a mosaic of those pieces that make up the sounds of Saigon – an aural mosaic that describes a true picture of bustling life in Saigon.
It’s 10pm and the alley is ready for another night. From my room overlooking the street I can hear the familiar sounds. The hissy – hiss hiss of the vegetable sellers broom sweeping away the curls of courgette and onion from the concrete in front of the shop.
The same sound wakes me up at 5.30am. The two old men, one always dressed in a blue suit, take their last coffee of the day in the café below my flat. The metal on metal of the Vietnamese drip coffee set clinks dully, the plastic stools scrape back and they wish each other ….. A stick tip – taps into the distance. Across the way the final numbers of the nightly bingo game are being called…, and a swarm of scooters beck from a night out on the honey trap buzz into their parking space.
The alley cat prowls his patch, yowling his displeasure to the world. Then a blanket of silence falls over the buildings and the beds and the balconies. Sleep comes fast under the ticka-ticka of the ceiling fan.
Sometimes the stillness is punctuated by the sound of rain, falling like sand on a metal tray. Or the crackle and bang of an electric storm cuts with a razor edge through the blackness.
The sharp metal squeak of the shop shutters opening welcome a new day. The love bird in the cage on a balcony stretches her throat and is joined swiftly by the aviary that hangs outside the cobbler’s house.
And then the dull, rhythmic thump – thump. The fish seller is squatted over a wooden board preparing her wares – the knife slicing through silver heads –followed by a splish, splash as she tosses them into the waiting bucket of iced water.
The wave of voices begins to surge forward. Children taken heavy eyed from their beds float past. The little girl who helps her mother at the Pho stall on the pavement hums a snatch of Vietnamese nursery rhyme – sweet as a mermaid. The voices keep rising up to my balcony, horns like pebbles skimming the surface. Finally I hear a banana cart driver calling…
That’s the signal for me to get up, make a coffee and sit on the balcony where I can see the alley awash with colour and infused with aromas.
When I first arrived in Vietnam these alien sounds stole sleep away from me. Now they make me feel comfortable like at home.
A few trilling notes rise above the sea of noise, light as a linnet. Below I see a blind man playing the flute, his daughter guiding him by the shoulder through the milling throng. The music fades away like melting snow... But not from my mind./.