Street life, Hanoi and HCMC

People sit on the sidewalks in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Children, old people, working men, teenage girls. Everybody is on the sidewalk, often squatting on teensy plastic stools, about 10 inches tall.

Jodi asked Cong if all of these people are selling stuff, or are some of them just sitting outside their homes? Cong confirmed that yes, many of them are simply in front of their homes, relaxing. Drinking tea. Playing Chinese chess. It can be a little hard to tell because often there is a small plastic table with bottled soft drinks, or a clear pitcher of golden iced tea, and it’s not so different from the people who are selling stuff — including the women who carry two baskets, one on each end of a long bamboo pole, and set up a hot kitchen on the curb. They dish up bowls of steaming hot soup, or grill meat or fish over red burning charcoal. The cluster of diners slurping around a makeshift restaurant is hard to distinguish from a family hanging out. Barbers cut hair on the sidewalks. We even saw a man welding metal, sparks flying, in the middle of a city sidewalk in Hanoi.

Today I watched a video about an old neighborhood in Brooklyn, New York, and I realized, suddenly, that American cities are no more than two generations removed from that same street life.

It looked a little different in New York — I saw the tail end of those days in the 1980s when I lived there, when whole families would still sit on the stoop (the front outdoor steps) of apartment buildings in Hell’s Kitchen and on the Lower East Side — before all the gentrification. Old people or young guys would play cards there, on the stoop. Sometimes they would sit in lawn chairs on the sidewalk. They might have a coffee cup on a saucer, or a glass of cold beer. In those days, I lived in an apartment without any air conditioning. Summers were brutal. We sat outside in the evenings, hoping for a cool breeze off the river.

In Little Italy, the old Italian men would sit on metal folding chairs in front of their social clubs, a tiny cup of espresso on a small wooden table, looking like characters in an early Scorsese movie.

Yeah, people in American cities used to sit on the sidewalks too, back in the days before air conditioning, before condos, before gentrification.

The Vietnam I saw this year will slowly disappear. Already the government has announced a ban on street restaurants, but I heard that public outcry has forced a reprieve. No doubt that will be temporary.

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